How the digital availability of film and video alters our viewing habits
»The fetishistic spectator, driven by a desire to stop, to hold and to repeat these iconic images […], can suddenly, unexpectedly encounter the index. The time of the camera, its embalmed time, comes to the surface, shifting from the narrative ›now‹ to ›then‹. The time of the camera brings with it an ›imaginary‹ of the filming into the mind’s eye, the off-screen space of the crew and the apparatus, so that the fictional world changes into consciousness of the pro-filmic event.« If one goes along with the considerations of feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, the »possessive spectator« begins to construct an entirely new relationship to the apparatus through his intervention: he becomes a part of it and is no longer sitting on the outside. Through the development of a medium such as the DVD and thus the remote control, the cinematic experience loses its ephemerality and linear narration can be fragmented into favourite moments, studies of movement or gestures. The decisive element here is that control over the sequence and speed of the images is no longer exercised solely at the editing bench by professionals, but instead every single person that intervenes in a work and wishes to appropriate images and sounds created by someone else.
In the era of YouTube, characterised by the increasingly popularity of the work and practice of VJs, this might already sound like a somewhat dusty chapter from the history of film theory. Or as film restorer Martin Koerber notes in a statement announcing a recent colloquium organised by the Deutsche Kinemathek on the »Digital Challenge«: »The potential availability of all images ultimately also invites creative re-use: a found-footage film becomes a remix, the user’s access becomes the programme and part of audiovisual culture.« Terms like »mixing« or »veejaying« flirt with a playful performative lightness that has long been decoupled from the cumbersome apparatus of cinema, which may however also vanish rapidly in the actual work of re-editing films or found footage. There has been a great deal of reflection over the last few years on time, attention and perception, on successful and failed attempts to find new loci for film, all the flirtations between cinema and museum, yet a new level that is still hard to determine is added through the growing decentralised availability of images, be it via peer-to-peer-networks or through the omnipresent proprietary participation machine of YouTube. »The viewer as the sovereign subject of their experience« has new tasks to master.
What shifts with the movements of zapping, editing, arranging, cutting, looping, spooling or pausing? When users start to intervene, which is scarcely possible with television, or start to download films, artworks, documents, edit them or put them together as a programme, the daze dissipates, as does the sense of dizziness at excessive visual overload, and yet it may bubble up again after all at the very next moment. There are still a whole host of unanswered questions just waiting for answers concerning what is at stake in respect of the multitudinous activity of editing consumers, issues relating to authorship, performance, film history, the document and even encompassing the question of original sound and creative rights.
Why though should viewers give up their active passivity? Quite apart from the urge to self-representation and individually organised (self-)distribution, developing new forms of criticism, working with the images rather than simply writing about them may prove to be an appealing challenge for critics – particularly as the surviving programming niches on television where that kind of thing was still possible are constantly being scrapped. Talking about film and film history in their political context, theory performance, shots taken with a hand-held camera for activist purposes alongside a contemplative close-up, scenes from a feature film and snippets from audio archives – perhaps this would be a fair way of sketching out the contours of the realm in which the editing viewers are active. Adding new footnotes to the »Histoire(s) du Cinema«. In this context, the most time-consuming part of the work involves fitting together the various different formats. The point is not to separate images from their sound track and to combine them with new sound that is as fast and experimental as possible, nor indeed is the focus on visual underpinning, riot porn or extreme experiences of vision, but instead the emphasis tends rather towards arranging a kind of discourse of images and for the space of a screening to group together scattered digital images, dry and unglamorous as they may be, in a new format and a social space, hold them up side-by-side, pull them together.
The act of intervening in an existing, edited film, treating it in turn as material, can be utterly lacking in respect or entirely respectful. There may be updates and dislocations. A scene from a feature film sliced out of its original setting can take on a documentary note, in the sense that viewers have access to the product, the product of a work context – » so that the fictional world changes into consciousness of the pro-filmic event«, as Laura Mulvey asserts. But what about the question of who these images belong to, in what way this form of re-arrangement is an act of appropriation, and whether something is stolen from someone in the process or conversely given back? When Laura Mulvey refers to the »fetishistic spectator«, who sets store above all by making the images stand still, she is referring more to the power of the olden days of glamorous Hollywood cinema, the image of the star, to the creation of an icon, which is driven by film stills. The processes that we steer via remote control rupture the link between image and sound. The new world cinema is a cinema of speech. The internet can signify endless murmuring, discussing, talking. It is the original soundtrack that refers to the specific locus of its production, much more than the image does. Very different things can be done with images and sounds available on the internet in digital form. When viewers start to instigate a work process with images that do not belong to them, but which they now have access to, they also to a large extent become part of an intriguing interaction: »Imaginary property is a concept that can be read in at least two directions, it is a dirty double genitive: property produced by imagination, or images turning into properties.« The dirty ambiguous genitive may well become the next major challenge.
Text: Annett Busch
Translation: Helen Ferguson
1 Laura Mulvey: Death 24 X a Second – Stillness and the Moving Image. London 2006, p. 173.
2 C.f. Vague Terrain 09: Rise of the VJ – http://www.vagueterrain.net, http://www.raumfuerprojektion.de, http://remixtheory.net
3 Colloquium organised by Deutsche Kinemathek: Die digitale Herausforderung (The digital challenge), 13th and 14th June 2008, Kino Arsenal, Berlin.
4 Alexander Kluge, 10 vor 11, 27th May 2008.
5 Florian Schneider: Imaginary Property, http://www.kein.org/node/198