The Discrete Charm of the Digital Image
included in the book: “The Sharpest Point: animation at the end of cinema” edited by Chris Gehman and Steve Reinke, YYZ Books
The Discrete Charm of the Digital Image: Animation and New Media
By David Clark
A Year and a Day
Although it is explained clearly to us in the titles before the film starts, we find it astonishing all the same: there he is, Tehching (Sam) Hsieh, the Korean-born performance artist, aging before our eyes. His body jerks and convulses. Hair sprouts from his head. His face betrays the strain of interrupted sleep. The film, entitled Time Piece, is documentation of a performance that condenses a year of his life into about six minutes of film. A frame of the 16-mm film showing the artist dressed in simple overalls standing beside a punch clock was taken every hour on the hour from 7 p.m. on April 11, 1980 until 6 p.m. on April 11, 1981. A camera has been given control over a man’s life and the result shows us the fact that time passes and we age. I can think of no other film that shows us this naked truth about time so succinctly. Life is short and brutish when your life is seen at one second a day.
Peter Osborne points out “film is, famously, the technology of representation most closely associated with philosophical insight into the mutual and paradoxical constitution of time and self.” The indexical qualities of film, the insistence on the this was, is very pronounced in Hsieh’s work. The film devoutly records what happens to this man for a year and yet I have the sinking feeling that time isn’t like this. He has been cheated of the time between each frame. I have the same feeling when I can’t remember my dreams – when the moment I wake seems like the very same moment after I fell asleep. Although intellectually we know that this film represents a year, the audience lives this film in the present. And here we get to the philosophical problem embodied by film: although film is indexical – we are at a remove from the moment that is being represented – we experience film in the present, in our present, the only present that exists. Animation and “live action” construct these presents differently. Live action is recorded continuously in time whereas in animation the image is usually recorded discontinuously. Hsieh’s film is a paradox then. Is it a live-action film recorded at a very slow frame rate – twenty-four frames a day – or is it an animation, an index of discrete moments contrived to give us the impression of time passing continuously?
In his 1993 video installation 24 Hour Psycho, Scottish artist Douglas Gordon took the entire Hitchcock film Psycho and slowed it down so that it took twenty-four hours to play – about two frames a minute or thirty seconds a frame (which is, by the way, longer than the statistics say the average viewer considers a painting in a gallery). The film has been transported from the cinema, where we sit immobile and let images flow over us, to the gallery, where we are accustomed to go to contemplate static images. We see frames from the film as if they are photographs demonstrating Lev Manovich’s point that “behind even the most stylized cinematic images we can discern the bluntness, the sterility, the banality of early nineteenth-century photographs.” And although we know they describe time passing, in the gallery these frames take on an air of timelessness. They have been returned to their immortal roots as photographs. This work exposes what Gilles Deleuze calls the great paradox of cinema: that time is represented by the quick succession of discrete images one after another.
Time Frames and Frames of Mind
The American video artist Phyllis Baldino takes a different tact in considering the discrete properties of cinematic image. In her video In the Present she looks for the basic psychological unit of cinema. The video consists of a series of strange performative vignettes, each seven to twelve seconds – the length of time that an image stays in short-term memory before being committed to long-term memory. Each fragment is separated by a long pause as the screen goes white. This white screen functions to erase the short vignette from our mind, thus disabling our capacity to sequence it through memory. We take in each scene with only the part of the mind that examines sensation. By keeping us in the present, the video gives us a glimpse of a strange world free from the effects of long-term memory. This work seeks to disrupt the effect of continuity created by the cinematic image. It is a work that wants to deny the effect that animation relies on. And it is here that we see that animation engages a different psychology than the indexical qualities of live film. Animation enacts what Freud termed the uncanny, that category of aesthetic feeling that accompanies our uncertainty about what is alive and dead. And so perhaps we could contrast the category of “live action” film and with what should perhaps be called “dead action” film or perhaps even “undead” cinema – the haunted realm of the animated film that produces the effect of time without an index.
This uncanny effect is exposed in the work of Viennese filmmaker Martin Arnold. He applies frame by frame animation techniques to pre-existing Hollywood films. He does not alter individual frames, but animates by repeating and reversing sequences. Originally done with meticulous optical printing, Arnold now employs the microscopic precision of non-linear digital editing systems. Arnold’s work includes thousands of edits where before there had been only a single continuous shot. In his 1998 film Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy, Martin Arnold uses this technique to examine, amplify and distort subtle motions and gestures he finds in the actors’ gestures in an Andy Hardy film. By repeating, scrubbing, and elongating individual frames he re-animates the motion and sound of individual scenes to create what seem like monstrous puppets spewing emphatic utterances. Judy Garland, in one sequence of Arnold’s film, comically and hauntingly calls out “Alone, Alone, Alone”. When Andy Hardy (played by Mickey Rooney) plants an innocent kiss on the neck of his mother Arnold is able to transform this scene into a terrifying Oedipal attack. While this work has a certain resemblance to the scratch video where these techniques have been deployed to created an ironic distance from the original material, this work amplifies the micro-narratives and disturbing psychology that can be drawn out of the seemingly innocent world of the 1940s family drama. Arnold’s work is animation’s zombie revenge on live cinema.
The Mark of Zeno
The ancient Greek philosopher Zeno attempted to prove that when an arrow flies it is actually at rest. This famous paradox asks us to accept that at each moment in the arrow’s flight it must occupy the space equal to its own length and therefore, in that discrete moment, it must be still. Film, as an accumulation of still photographs, enforces this picture of time as a series of instances. Unlike live film, with animation we don’t expect that each image was created simultaneously with the moment it represents. The image is constructed, not captured. Animation presents us with a different model of thinking about the problem of time. Animations are constructed out of quite obviously discrete frames and yet, are experienced as a flow – giving the impression that time is real only in the eye of the beholder. For the French philosopher Henri Bergson, the character of temporal continuity of consciousness is constructed, not received. In “The Cinematic View of Becoming” Bergson rebukes Zeno’s paradox: “every attempt to reconstitute change out of states implies the absurd proposition that movement is made out of immobilities.” Even so, film has retained this mark of Zeno. The film frame has become a received idea of what constitutes the basic unit of time.
With the invention of instantaneous photography, we uncovered a microcosm of time and the event. In his “A Short History of Photography,” Walter Benjamin describes how the photographic aura withered as the technical advances in photography allowed for shorter and shorter poses. As the photograph moved towards the instant, it was less able to capture the traces of duration that for Benjamin gave the photograph its charm and particular haunting quality. And as the image was drained of its aura, it took us into a world beyond our experience in a similar way that the invention of the microscope drew us into a new unimagined world. As the microscope allowed us to understand and manipulate this minute world (such as fighting germs, etc), so to the world of the instantaneous photograph led the way to the birth of cinema where it was discovered that combining discrete images in sequence could create the illusion of continuous motion. We had to kill duration to create the image of time.
When Edweard Muybridge generated his first set of motion studies he was met with disbelief that these flailing images of horses – each numbered in sequence – actually reflected discrete moments of a horse running. There was something unphotographic – or perhaps unauratic – about these images to the eye of the contemporary beholder who were used to long torturous poses in front of the slow chemistry of the photographic plate. Muybridge had to animate the individual frames of his studies back into motion through a primitive device called the zoopraxisscope to convince the skeptics. The irony perhaps – that speaks more to the birth of animation than to live cinema – is the fact that Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope images were not made from photographic images but of drawings made of each photographic image – a technique now known as rotoscoping.
The nineteenth century had seen a parade of animation technologies that lent themselves to our imagining of time as a succession of discrete moments. The zootrope, praxiscope, kinetoscope, cinematograph, phenakistiscope, thaumatrope, choreutoscope, etc. all provided metaphors of discrete states for the intangibilities of passing time. With the development movie cameras, animation became the poor cousin of cinema as the automated process of recording real time events overtook the meticulous creation of an illusion of time created one frame at a time. As Lev Manovich describes it “Twentieth century animation became a depository for nineteenth century moving-image techniques left behind by cinema.” However, in the digital age, animation has thrown off the shackle of laborious work and now the distinction is blurred. Manovich makes the point that “digital cinema is a particular case of animation that uses live-action footage as one of it’s many elements.”
The invention of the motion picture was another example of our giving over to the machine the authority of defining the real. Realism in painting had been radically displaced by the advent of the photograph in the same way that measurement displaced the human observation in the sciences. By the nineteenth century, science had been transformed by the use of scientific instruments whereas art still relied on man as the measure of all things. Rodin’s reaction to photography is typical. “It is the artist who tells the truth and photography that lies. For in reality, time does not stand still.” The fact that Muybridge’s instantaneous photographs could make time stand still and then turn around to create such a compelling realization of the movement of time was an important contributor to the mechanization of the real. In cinema that Jean-Luc Godard once defined as truth at 24 frames per second, Muybridge’s truth has largely won over Rodin’s.
Subatomic Cinema and Postcards from Godard
Godard had another analogy for cinema. He said “to make cinema or television, technically, is to send twenty-five postcards per second to millions of people.” The postcard, however, was an indiscrete construct. Postcards were introduced during the time of the Franco-Prussian War after the hostilities started to drag on and soldiers needed to have a system of communicating with loved ones that could be monitored by military censors. The marriage of text, address and image in the postcard, as well as its military genealogy, may also serve as a powerful metaphor for digital cinema. New media is nothing if not indiscrete. Digital film has split the atom. The frame is no longer the basic unit of truth. A frame and a moment are no longer held together by the medium the way it was in film. They have been divided and reorganized. A frame of film is now a complex array of possible components each with a number of possible sources and controls. Truth is now a mixture of pixels and code – of images and communication systems. And the charm of the discrete units of digital cinema has the same intangibility of the charm of a subatomic particle.
And so the condition of animation these days is one of increasing abstractness as the image is removed from the hand of the animator and the index of time. The image in digital animation is derived not exclusively from optics but also from vectors and datastreams. A film is not a linear progression of frames along a timeline but the coordination of databanks, images, sounds and code. And ultimately the basic unit of digital film is not the frame but the simplicity of binary machine code. In digital media the progression of the image is not limited to the run/stop algorithm of the film projector but can now engage in the complex if/then logic of the computer code. With this code the physics of movement can be written and distributed separately from the image itself. The code can generate the image and the image can generate code. Just as live action film can now be seen as a subset of animation so to can animation be seen now as one particular simple example of this image/code hybrid. As Lev Manovich contends, new media is no longer an indexical medium.
The Hand of the Animator
The “hand of the animator” is a term used in the history of animation to denote the self-referential use of the animator’s hand on the screen to interact with the drawn, animated figures in the frame. Its’ appearance in many early animations attests to how animators came to terms with the strangeness of this new medium. Through the hand of the animator we are able to imagine our body inside the strange and foreign parallel world created by a new technology. It is part of the formal exploration of the medium that accompanies shifts in visual culture. With the loss of the indexical relationship to reality in digital cinema, a new ontology of the medium is emerging and in contemporary new media art you can see this hand of the animator effect returning as artists once again explore the formal characteristics of the new medium. The “hand of the animator” effect now needs to expose us the relation between the cinematic image and the code that controls it.
Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans are artists from Belgium and The Netherlands who work under the name of jodi.org. They are recognized as early innovators of net.art. Their work evolved from experiments with VJing to early hacking experiments with game code. Untitled Game, for instance, uses the game engine from popular commercial gaming software DOOM that they hacked leaving the navigation system intact but the visuals reduced to a Mondrian-like abstract world. Jodi.org’s websites exploit the way in which underlying html code constructs a web page, and in particular the pop-up window, to create animated motion. The experience of opening up Jodi.org site can make you feel like your computer has been possessed. Pop up windows dash across the screen like frightened cockroaches. The web page is no longer the frame through which you look at the work. The frame is animated and, after you orient yourself to it, is the work itself. The normally quiet and obedient HTML has become an animator. The experience of their website draws your attention to the way the convention of the web page is an animated experience and evokes the uncanny feelings we ascribe to our computers as being controlled by viruses and spyware.
Jim Punk also exploits unconventional approaches to constructing web pages. For him the web space is a place to explore the vocabulary of graffiti. His work owes a debt to the “tag” of the graffiti writer. Ironically HTML – or hypertext markup language – is also constructed with “tags” that separate the code from the content of the HTML. In Jim Punk’s work navigation functions are often disabled or confused, leaving the viewer to negotiate an unruly array of images and pop up windows. This work disrupts the habits we have formed in navigating web pages and, like jodi.org’s work, draws our attention to the animated experience of the web browser environment. The use of self-referential motifs like the Qwerty keyboard or the animated window makes us consider these conventions in a different light. The titles of his works; 100.000.000.000.000 —Headache & various musical temptations for International Computers *Error* and paranoiacwww allude to the psychological dimension of web browsing.
This work has its roots in the disruptive modernist impulses of Dada and absurdist theatre. Applied to the new conventions of the webpage, they contribute to a critical evaluation of the conventions being established on the internet. They also extend the tradition of the animated film beyond the frame of the internet. Under the banner “hackitivism,” artists are discovering the potential of a wide range of new technologies and questioning their social use. For instance, jodi.org has used email spam as a system of distribution and the net.art collective 0100101110101101.org (with programmers “epidemic”) released a virus called Biennale.py from the Slovenian Pavilion at the 49th Venice Biennale on June 6, 2001. Artists are realizing that almost everything is, or can be, animated in our new media landscape
The Hand on the Ouija Board
The computer has incorporated the hand of the animator effect into the design of the machine itself. The computer mouse allows us to be the hand of the animator – to reach into and interact with this strange new world. The GUI (graphic user interface) that paved the way for the popularization of computing is a continuation of that impulse of wanting our presence to be symbolized within the medium. Our way of negotiating the contours and parameters of the digital world is now offered to us through a proto-tactile experience termed ‘interactivity.’ The audiences of new media works now have a participatory role in the work that is somewhere between a user and a viewer, something the American media artist Bill Seaman has called the “vuser.” Interactivity has created the possibility of a tug of war between you and the work and again opened up questions about what is alive and dead. The prototype of this experience is perhaps the Ouija board.
The new media artwork Puppet Tool by the French collective LeCieLestBleu allows the viewer to manipulate a bestiary of animals such as a horse, giraffe, or penguin, each created from photorealistic fragments. These creatures are animated by a combination of the viewer’s interaction and computer code that gives physicality and elasticity to the creature’s movements. There is something akin to Muybridge’s experiments in this work as it investigates the mystery of motion and how things work. But the image and the motion are not an index of reality as they are in Muybridge’s sequences. The image is created through still photographic images whereas the movement derives from how the code is able to move these fragments to simulate the weight and feel of a body in motion. It is through the viewer’s interaction with this work that we understand the physicality of the world being described.
Another example of this puppet interface metaphor is the web site SodaPlay. This work allows the viewer to create wire-frame models in a virtual space by connecting dots together with lines. These simple constructions can then be subjected to the effects of gravity, tossed around by the user or programmed to move by themselves. This piece also has an online communal toy box where constructions can be added to an archive or entered in races with other users. The simplicity of this tool underlines even more succinctly than Puppet Tool how new media work has broken apart the relationship between the image and movement. The viewer is brought into the animation process as the creator of the objects but it is the virtual world – the frame around the object – that animates them.
American net artist Erik Loyer combines traditional linear narrative with the responsive interface in his 2001 piece Chroma. A voiceover guides us through a sci-fi scenario where characters discover and explore an abstract landscape – a “natural cyberspace” – through simple graphics and text. The mouse functions of point and click each control different aspects of the navigation. The click function moves the narrative ahead while the point function (moving the mouse around the screen) is attached to a code that controls how the graphic elements on the screen behave. An interesting push and pull happens with this piece. Although we are engaged in the progressive unfolding of a story we also create some of the animation ourselves.
Andy Foulds has also explored the interactive possibilities of code-based animation combined with photographic images. In a particularly poignant example of this technique is an animation called Leader of the Free World? where an elastic image of George W. Bush can be led around the screen by his nose following a dollar sign cursor. In another piece Tony Blair obsessively follows an image of Bush. We only understand this work by participating in it, by using it. The animation is no longer an index of a determined motion but a record of our hand moving across the piece.
Hans Hoogerbrugge is a net.artist from the Netherlands who is known for his absurdist interactive animated figures. Dressed in business attire, he appears as a recurring character in his work. He uses animation as a way to create a bizarre and surreal world where anything is possible. Through a click or a rollover or sometimes a keystroke the viewer becomes the hand of the animator interacting with this world. His series Modern Living is an encyclopedia of small interactive visual gags; perhaps the figure’s head explodes, or he suddenly plays air guitar, or rips off his face to release flies trapped in his head. The works Flow and Spin move forward through a progression of interconnected vignettes that inevitably loop back to the beginning again. The interaction is integrated with the progression of the music making the work a semi-interactive rock video. In the work Hotel, Hoogerbrugge has added more complex gaming elements into his vocabulary of animation allowing storylines and characters (abet still quite absurd) to develop over a number of chapters and in a series of locations in his fictional hotel.
These works explore how the dynamics of interaction create meaning but the work but they still fall in the tradition of character animation. The computer has allowed another branch of animation, abstract animation, to flourish as well.
Ghost in the Machine
Generative animation removes the hand of the animator even further. Also called software art or code art, generative animation creates images and motion through the use of computer algorithms. The computer’s efficiency and speed at generating images has created new possibilities for abstraction in cinema. Programs can visualize the recursive mathematical functions used by programmers or reproduce mathematical descriptions of motion described by physics equations. But they are abstractions. Even the most obtuse films of Stan Brakhage are still an index of chemical and optical material processes. Computer based artworks where the images are generated by the underlying code create a new level of remove from the material index of the work. As the image is constructed as it is being displayed, any distinction between animation and live action dissolves. It is work that exemplifies Bergson’s idea of time as creative evolution and dissolves Zeno’s paradox.
Generative art’s genealogy includes John Cage’s experiments with chance operations in composition, Duchamp’s removal of the hand of the artist in his readymades, as well as the OULIPO movement in France, which sought to create a literature out of generative structures and constraints. Generative work also has an affinity with the rule-based work of Sol Lewitt and the geometric abstraction of Bridget Riley and the British school of op art and system art. This was work that prioritized the process of codifying and executing the artwork through mechanical and logical procedures. The ontology of cinema under these conditions is not one that is aligned with being – the pure presence of the indexical this was of live action film – but with that of becoming, the aesthetics of process and uncertainty.
The code of the early cinema could be seen as a crude mechanical system that simply replaced one complete image for another at a standard rate (eighteen or twenty-four frames per second) creating the remarkable illusion of a time image. The complexity of the parameters for the control of animation by computer code has now left the intuitive grasp of the viewer. New media work can now connect the process of generating the animation to any number of complex data sets or mathematical operations. There is a continuity of this work to the visual formalism and abstract language of painting and drawing over the last century but there is also a new instability and unpredictability of the art object. Generative artwork dances on the grave of the death of the author and is perhaps the royal road to the unconscious of artificial intelligence.
The work of British net.artist Stanza continues this trajectory of system art and abstract painting from the 1960s. His works use the generative capabilities of the computer to create complex and ever changing pieces. Works like central city, amorphoscapes, and subvergence create dynamic landscapes of text, image and sound. Although the vocabulary of colour, shape, texture and form have a lineage in Abstract Expressionist painting, the work also incorporates architectural, diagrammatic references and artifacts from digital culture. The ccityv part of the central city project, for instance, uses video from webcams of cities as the source material for a series of distortions.
The field of generative art has flourished with the coming together of computer programming and animation. This world is populated by both artists who have taken up programming as well as designers and codeheads who aspire to work in the visual art world. Sites such as Praystation, Bodytag, Levitated.net, Incident.net, Liquid Journey, Bit.101, and uncontrol.com are all repositories of code generated visual experiments and abstract animation that continue the tradition of experimental animation of Stan Brakhage and Norman McLaren. The exploration is often one that straddles or even transcends categories of art and programming just as the internet has blurred the line between professional and hobby practices. What is distinctly different however is how the sequential progression and temporal index of the creation and reception of this work has changed. Many of these works have no fixed temporal dimension. They simply run for however long they are left. And their creation is no longer inscribed in their form. They are generated in the instance the code is executed. They are, in essence, live animation.
A Year and a Day (Reprise)
John Cabral web piece Ground Zero is an animation that works around the clock. It plays continuously over 24 hours and the narrative unfolds in correspondence to the time in the real world. The cartoon characters in Cabral’s world seem to live in real time and the banality of the everyday. This is somewhat uncanny given that we are used to the compressed and kinetic storylines of cartoon animations because of the labour intensive nature of animation production. But in Cabral’s world – generated with video game character software – the time and duration of this medium has been extended. We have the impression that we are looking here at a webcam for cartoon characters. Cabral’s piece reframes animation by playing with the scale of duration in a way that is similar to what Douglas Gordon did with 24 Psycho.
Of course one of the important considerations for duration work on the internet is the fact that these works are not constrained by the reception of films in a theatre or strict broadcast schedule of television. Film requires a considerable investment of time and the presence of the audience to attend the screening of a film. The internet is a domestic animal that extends the distracted viewing patterns of the television audience but with random access to the content. Web work and video games are more like a novel that you pick up and put down as it fits in with your schedule.
This idea of duration and time is the subject of a work by MTAA (M. River & T.Whid Art Associates) called 1 year performance video (aka samHsiehUpdate). They have been updating classic conceptual art for the internet in a series that includes remakes of On Kawara and Vito Acconci works. This work is a pastiche of Sam Hsieh’s 1978 performance where he locked himself inside a small room for a year. For the web piece the two artists appear in what seems to be a live streaming video of two identical 10’ x 10’ x 10’ rooms. The viewer is asked to log in and observe the performance in progress as they go about a mundane series actions of sleeping, reading, working on a computer in their self-imposed confinement. The duration of the piece indicated in the title is not actually length of the performance event; however. The live video has been stitched together from video fragments that seamlessly create the illusion of real time similar to the technique used to create the Subservient Chicken video that was sponsored by Burger King where a video of a man in a chicken suite in an apartment would seemingly respond to instructions typed into the site. The real duration of the piece depends on how long the viewer watches. The piece will be over when someone has logged on and watched the piece for a year. The piece presents an illusion of real time ‘live’ video using the constructed techniques of animation. It also highlights the fact that new media work is often more about the index of the viewers experience that an index of the event of the object.
Animation’s trajectory into new media has radically altered the techniques of the medium but perhaps more importantly it has fundamentally altered the metaphors by which we imagine time and change. Time is that most intangible of concepts and artists continue to be frame questions about time from within digital culture. How we understand duration and represent time through an indexical process has changed in a way that is analogous to how physics’ understanding of matter shifted from the nineteenth century intuitive conceptions of atomism that proposed that matter was like our reality only smaller to the surreal twentieth century world of quarks, charm, spin, uncertainty, incompleteness and chaos. And so the experiments with time and duration that constituted the formal phase of examining the media arts have been updated. Hsieh’s year and Gordon’s day are different things on the internet.