What is Hollywood, you ask, dear children? A quorum of whores babbling endlessly on about fucking while the bordello is razed for a penny arcade -- Paul Bern

Monday, August 23, 2010

MEDIA APOCALYPSES



All lost moving images have at least existed for some viewer in the past. The unseen is an integral part of our lives, even if not directly our own. (…) The fact that the unseen is beyond our control is an excellent antidote to our claim of authority over the visible world, and administers a good shaking up to our deluded obsession with permanence. Sooner or later you and I will both disappear, along with our visions and memories of what we have seen and the way we have seen it.  – Paolo Cherchi Usai, The Death of Cinema

I would have sought as my own country a happy and peaceful commonwealth of which the history was lost, so to speak, in the darkness of time. – JJ. Rousseau


Images multiply unstoppably and we continue to die along with our flabby memories. From the fading & quixotic perspective of the film-materialist, the virality of electronic images is a sort of nihilistic vandalism – applied pataphysics, a Debordian game gone horribly wrong. In a box somewhere, in my own private archive, I keep a videotape copy, on magnetically drifting elegiac Beta, of Lindsay Anderson’s film if… strictly as a memento mori of the relentless cyclic quality of these media apocalypses – the rich man’s 8-track tape, in Steve Albini’s always fresh post-punk luddite formula for this creative destruction which every babe in toyland recognizes as necessary. Platform shifts are now required as media apocalypses, not just -- as is so cynically presumed -- for commercial reasons, but as constant re-filtration, to rescue the senile, confused low country of attention against the ocean of cancerous human creation. Not just the Mona Lisae, but the Duchamp moustaches, too, and Fulano De Tal’s faux-subversive lil’ remixes, as well as the vast rotting estuary of “garbage” images that we don’t even notice.

An action from somewhere in the lost territory of the historical. Paolo Cherchi-Usai, once upon a time the senior curator at the Eastman House, made a film called Passio out of five elements: silent images reflecting the secret crisis of cinema, black leader, calligraphy, tinting, and Arvo Pärt’s music, meant to be played live. He called the film a sequel to his book The Death of Cinema. He destroyed the negative, and allowed a certain number of prints to circulate, to be slowly destroyed, consumed by the slight, wearing violence of projection and the vagaries of time. In short, by pointedly NOT refusing his film a history, thus a life, and eventually a death, in this ridiculous age of the eternal.

Where stands the conservative impulse in the formless nothing of post History? What does it mean to preserve an image, as in the mnemonist’s trade, when the foolish drive to preserve images is now under siege from metastasis, rather than scarcity? Images which are now the firmament, the faint pressing at the eyes, the sense of the dead, the outnumbering crowd. It’s important to wonder these things, because the curatorial instinct is fetishistic, it is the peculiar force of the object itself, in all its haeccitas, the thisness that seduces its keeper into erotic custody. Because the thing always captures the keeper, and not the other way around. So, how exactly should we feel about these noumenic and numeric cloud-armies of perfect copies, zeroes and ones – the shit only a mainframe could love.  The aesthetic of losslessness is here. Cherchi-Usai, that old skool geezah, would say we can only love the damage and the patina.

So when someone, in casual conversation, tells you losslessness is the new memory – spit in their face, I authorize it, they are fucking pod people. Losslessness. Look at the word, admire it its brazen beauty for a moment. Because losslessness is one of those deadening orwellian words, on the reassuring border between cant, violence, and advertising. It says that one is losing less than nothing – which is exactly what is declared with authority when something is being irrevocably lost. It is also a concept that involves altering the texture and substance of the “present”, and spiritualizing it, turning us all into Madame Blavatskys and images back into the ghosts they always were.

It was never a coincidence that auteurism, the outbreak of cinephilia, and television, were co-eval: when films were modulated on television for the first time they, along with the hard work of the dream factory, actually became visible and cherished, and therefore their future and eventual loss could be actively mourned.

Digitalization is seriality (1) on a environmental scale. It turns everything into a Warhol, but it also crashes the market along with the disk drive. “I’ve got a Brillo Box, but I say it’s art, it’s the same one you can buy at any supermarket, cause I’ve got the style it takes…”  Like Debord, Andy understood that Capital had fled to image -- he’d go apoplectic when the other guys fetched a higher price than he did. The Warhol Foundation, that angry corporate behemoth, still doesn’t get the joke – its business is suing people who make fake warhols. “These boxes are not authorized by the artist and should be removed from the official list of Andy Warhol Brillo boxes.” The key was that Andy, like any factory owner, always worked ‘em hard and cheap. What you’re really buying when you buy a Warhol is the spreadsheet history of what culture philistines like you paid for it. Only the intercourse of the philistines is valuable. The art objects themselves are worthless. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Rather than spending the time and energy de-authenticating warhols – the Foundation should buy Warhols at market rates and then destroy them for the sake of the few that survive. There’d be a beautiful symmetry in the sight of Andy’s millions consuming themselves for the sake of the posterity of the art market.

The studios, of course, are in an even worse position – they spend gazillions to make and publicize fake art into zeitgeist material that is transient, accessible, forgettable, interchangeable and immaterial and fatally easy to copy and then they sweat with outrage when people steal it. And so they are left scrambling for the dregs of some Veblen Effect off of 3D and IMAX. That hustler with the folding table and the cracking software, man, he’s just doin’ the Duchamp shuffle. Since information, being a poor relation of the hegelian Spirit, as the cliché goes “wants to be free”, then and therefore, if all you have to bring to the culture table is information, then you’re necessarily both a fighter of freedom and an emperor with no clothes. The people, they of the dream maquila, who once provided the ancient parts for the spectacle are baffled. They don’t understand that they no longer produce the “official” spectacle, which is of fast declining interest to the mass – that actually the process of domination is now out of their hands and has moved, has diffused as Debord would say, into the producer-consumer of the spectacle, that is, you and I. We, who have nothing to gain but these, our pleasant chains.

Because working the spectacle actually gives pleasure. One can’t deny that. Like all those people who thought it would be “fun” to have a blog, until that bittersweet day they felt the simmering resentment of the tiny mass who depended on it, and they knew at last the mutual & rancorous captivity of the small fascism of interplay. Who exactly is a Follower of who, each little mussolini wondered, suffering in silence?

Hollis Frampton, in visionary wizard mode, speaks of photographs, film and video as excremental attempts, essays in a tentative attempt “to construct something that will amount to an arena for thought, and presumably, as well, an arena of power, commensurate with that of language.” A material precursor for something that no longer needs any scaffolding. I very much like this poetic image of coral-like translucent husks of excrement growing, as if by some fungal process, into an invisible sorta-cathedral of the spectacle. But cathedral is not right. Hollis is clear, this is not exactly a place, not a medium or an extension, but an electronic uber-category. A new collectivity for our subjectivity.


IMAGE-UTTERANCE

Now is not the time to rehash the endless semiotic debates about whether film is a para-language or an idiolect full of sound and fury, signifying, like, whatever…; or, conversely, whether reality is a sort-of film, but we can wonder if, a lo mejor, digitalization is the familiar shift from language as sound, as utterance, to language as sign-image, but this time, weirdly and perhaps, uncomfortably, in reverse. A pole shift, from the materialized-objective to the sensorized-subjective. From the relatively opaque, thick and erotic surface of luminous silver to the protean, transparent, watery, ravening electronic image, condemned to flow, homeless, from container to container until exhausted. The electronic image is, in its algorhythmic essence, of the class of mathematic objects, that knowable intermediary in the platonic scheme between the ideal, i.e. the ‘look’ of things, and the damp crumbs of the material world. The white noise chatter of the electronic image marks us all as neo-platonists, hostages of the ideal.

AND -- images not just ideal, but exchangeable – a flowing currency. So it’s not so far fetched to think of the internet as a mad inflationary economy where everyone can print their own money.

But for the sake of paradox, let’s introduce here Frampton’s law, which we can use for a good, savage précis of the digital age:

"Ironically, the very fact that film and the photograph escape certain conditions of ritual, the fact of their reproducibility, has virtually assured their disappearance. The more copies of (images) we can make, the more we are assured we don’t have to make any because we can always make them, and eventually, of course, none will have been made, and (they) will disappear."

Without notice, let’s add. Because the vanishing of specific images will mean nothing in the oceanic flux of the spectacular, just as it was impossible to notice the people vanishing, the growing blank spaces, in the sweet heyday of Stalinist photography.

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, materiality condemns Art – yes, I’m going to speak of that -- to decay and destruction; it’s inefficient and faulty; so mono no aware, so human scale, so fucking what…? Cherchi-Usai says that the mournful work of preserving images is triage. Save one film and you lose, forever, a thousand others. Memory, the subjective, personal counterpart of art, is revenant-like – it is the living part of something dead, and it needs to go underground once more. And nostalgia, let’s remember, was Debord’s final bit of show-business. Now, losslessness might mimic a biological process, but let’s not get confused – it’s not that unlike spitting in the wind. It might be the perfect moment to consider that other, more interesting suggestion in Bazin’s The Ontology of the Photographic Image; whether materiality, destruction and decay, and memory are essential or accidental components of art.

Once upon a time we preserved some particular thing because it had some kind of fragile, tenuous cultural value, which rhymed our fragile, tenuous lives, even if such value wasn’t apparent to the initial percipients. We weave what survives (which is randomness, pure accident) into a story, into History – where it all makes sense – but now we don’t have to worry anymore about The Unseen, thank heavens. Debord’s famous circle is now hegemonic, part of our inner achey-tecture:

“Everything that appears is good; 
                whatever is good will appear.” 

History may be gone, but the issue of memory dogs art, it might be the only reason for art. Art must be memorable enough to be preserved, memorable even just to feed our reveries.

Two related questions, therefore! Is art really necessary any more? And/or must it be mnemonic, still? This technological skin, this extension-environment-activity called the spectacular, activates (with an almost inaudible right-click) the reverie-function for us. It is our reverie as gulag. Debord is only subtly wrong when he puns this off of Freud: “The spectacle is the nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of sleep.”  Now, in the day-time people are forced outward into reverie, as it were, outside of themselves, and what’s more, conscripted to produce the spellbinding reverie-fabric as well. In a swell irony, it was left for the spectacle to really achieve the situationist goal of fusing the artist with the spectator; the everyday with the mad poetic gesture. Did you ask for gesamtkunstwerk? It’s called Facebook for now. 




And more bad news for the anarchy kids: detournement , the corporate symbol of which is the ubiquitous youtube embedded window, the window that looks at us, that same detournement  which even on its best day (April 11th of ‘59, I think) seemed a pretty weak strategy, even for the prevention of boredom, quickly got detourned  by the gods of media, those clever little ironists. 

Debord et Wolman, S.A.: 
“It is thus necessary to envisage a parodic-serious stage where the accumulation of detourned elements, far from aiming to arouse indignation or laughter by alluding to some original work, will express our indifference toward a meaningless and forgotten original, and concern itself with rendering a certain sublimity.”

We are so there, Guy-Ernest! Thus:

Q: As the writer of Downfall, the superb film about Hitler’s final days, I’m sure you’ve seen your work parodied on youtube literally hundreds of times with the various “Hitler Mash-up” videos. What do you think of those videos? If you find them at all amusing, do you have a favorite? Or are they too inappropriate? I confess that I find “Downfall of Grammar” pretty amusing…

Bernd Eichinger: I find those parodies tremendously amusing! Obviously, the film and this scene in particular is a real fire starter for people’s imagination. What else can you hope for as a filmmaker? This is moviemaking heaven!  My favorite one is when Hitler is having his tantrum over his losses in the real estate crisis. Hitler’s real crisis at the time was also about a gigantic real estate loss:  the loss of all those territories he had conquered fuelled by false credit and driven by avarice, megalomania and extreme ruthlessness. And then history’s Dow Jones came crushing down on him….I find this parody so funny because it’s historically relevant.

Check this out! Eichinger sublimely hi-jacks the meaningless and forgotten Hitler and his real estate crisis, and everyman detourns Eichinger. The “Hitler Mash-up” by borrowing the formal strategy of its ancestor, certifies the “reality” of Eichinger’s mash-up. The circle is closed again: you, little man, have successfully and tremendously amused Lord Eichinger, who is laughing all the way to the bank. But...but... BUT! Too late the producers realized that the joke-image was supplanting the film object and Hitler-as-market-concept, making them invisible. The process needed to be stopped, but how? Only a flesh and blood Hitler and a real Gestapo would have the power to demand such a tribute. Hmmm. But if you were to pay homage in a different way, say, by burning the negatives at Konstantinfilm, in emulation of Gudrun Ensslin (2), our führers would likely not be so amused. 

I mention this last in a laughing-nostalgic way, because it is no longer so easy to destroy these zombie images. There is no sense of religious sacrifice in the destruction of digital data. No dark nietszchean joy. There is no will to destroy zeros and ones, which makes for gently pulsing, forgotten Zombies with nothing to do but wait patiently on the next apocalypse. Which probably explains the obnoxious popularity of that genre.

Notes:
1. As defined by that tragic neo-lamarckian, Dr. Paul Kammerer: “The recurrence of the same or similar things or events in time and space - events which, as far as can be ascertained, are not connected by the same acting cause” aka meaningful, resonant, a-causal co-incidence. The secret hiving of the universe.

2. Played, in this universe, by Johanna Wokalek.

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