A camera does not see how an eye sees, and when an image seems to move, it is not actually moving as a thing moves – a “moving image” is always a series of still frames separated either by blackness or merged by algorithmic compression.
Since the moving image is captured by an instrument that gathers light and motion fundamentally differently than a human eye, and re-presents what it gathers at another time and place (even if only a split second separates gathering and viewing), what the moving image shows us is not this world.
All around us, we are presented with images, moving and static, that claim, overtly and implicitly, to represent our literal, living world: in the news, on the internet, on digital billboards along the freeway. Even in our fictional media, we believe we are looking at real live people who are actors playing roles. The “realism” of these “lifelike” representations grows day by day with higher resolution displays, 3D, and new, more immersive gaming consoles.
It is easy to believe that we are looking into this world, experiencing this world through our devices, through our facebook feeds. But what the moving image shows us is not this world.
What the moving image presents is far more analogous to a dream or an underworld, populated by the dead, than we are willing to admit. The actor in the show we love may not be dead, but his captured image in a frame, in a shot, in a scene, in an episode, in a season, in a series, is not moving, it is static. It is not alive, it is in fact digitally preserved, embalmed, will not change by a single pixel in a thousand years (if, in fact, the data is still retrievable by the digital devices a thousand years from now).
When we spend time immersed in our screens, we are in a virtual underworld, communing with the dead and the undead – a world which is timeless and formless, populated with unchanging figures and landscapes, and at the same time constantly shifting and burgeoning with new residents. We are communing with the dreams and spectres of our shared culture more surely than the PR guy who named Hollywood “The Dream Factory” ever imagined.
This is by no means a bad thing – if we know it. I am assigning no moral or ethical valuation to either the dream or the real life experience, the above, daylight world or the virtual, underground, shadow realm. But to confuse the dream with reality, to believe one is awake while one is asleep, is problematic. To sleepwalk out of the house is dangerous, to call the dead your friends will cost you something in the daylight world.
Today we can enter the underworld at will, multiple times a day, we can slide in and out of waking life smoothly – but like Orpheus, we cannot succeed in bringing the dead back to the daylight world with us. It is only possible to cross over, permanently, in one direction. We can foster relationships with our favorite shows and viral videos, revisit them again and again, but we cannot change a single pixel of their stories – except, I suppose, through the Necromancy of appropriated video art.
Coming to terms with the true nature of our media-saturated existence is profoundly important to our art, our culture, and our individual emotional and spiritual health. We have been complicit for too long in the comforting lie told by the moving image – that it is showing us our living world, that it represents real life. This sense of “connectedness” masks the more troubling concept that most of us spend many hours of our day inhabiting dream-space populated by the dead.
I am not saying we should turn off the screens. There are plenty of prominent media figures who periodically decry and denounce our plugged-in culture and exhort us to go outside, have real face-to-face interactions with humans – to no avail, of course.
Dreams are healthy and necessary, and the underworld is a healthy and necessary part of our individual and collective geography. We could not suppress them, wall them off, or banish them from our society even if we really wanted to, which we really don’t. We are drawn to our screens like moths to flame, they are absorbing us, swallowing us up – this is neither good nor bad, it just is.
But we can acknowledge them for what they are, for the role they play, for what they really represent. And, as artists who work with media (and everyone works with media these days) we can interact with them more authentically – we can use them, not to purport to create real-life experiences for audiences, but to trace a path into the dreamspace, a thread into the underworld, to present an unreality as unreality for visceral engagement, contemplation and reflection.
Experimental media, classical and contemporary, can be frustrating and challenging to watch, partly I think because it confounds the audience’s desire for an experience that convincingly mimics a literal, living reality – experimental media is willing to abandon spatial coherence, cause and effect, and narrative logic in favor of the free association, chaos and caprice of dream-illogic.
Neither making nor viewing experimental media is necessarily a safe and comfortable experience, just as dreams and journeys to the underworld often feel unsafe and uncomfortable. But just as dreams are necessary to human health, experimental media is necessary to the health of our culture, because it is willing to grapple more authentically with the disquieting truth of our experience of the moving image than mainstream media culture, which can be counted upon to choose a comforting and entertaining lie over an unsettling and destabilizing truth any day of the week.