Vice Versa Et Cetera

Introduction

The purpose of this thesis is to clarify a materialist position to digital video through my practice as a video artist. I am pursuing this through the term ‘popular video’, which forms two interconnected areas of research as: the popularity of video as a socially tool, and how this alters the perception of its mediated image when the audience as practitioners; and the specifics of digital video, as the basis of video’s accessibility and subsequent popularity, and how this can be utilities through a materialist position. I feel that now is an important moment for video, as the technology is in a moment of calm, loosing its physical carrier and becoming  digital file, and it is here where I find cause for defining a materialist position to video, through popular video.

Previously, locating the specific material qualities of video, over its many formats, has been a point of debate for artists, critics and theorists. Although a popular topic of discussion, as moving-image becomes a more accepted artist medium, I am yet to find a theory that adheres to my concerns around video’s materiality, with most seeing this as an indication towards the extinction of ‘medium’ as we know it. Popular video is crucial for my understanding of video today, as it is through the ability to make, share and see digital imaging on a previously unfathomable scale that the inner logic of the digital becomes visible.  This is the result of capitalist incentives wanting to push commercial technology beyond its competitors, and it is within these cracks that we begin to see evidence of the digital, to which the time-based qualities of video allow us to see these glimpses appearing over time, most evidently through popular video.

My position of video is the process of saving and viewing screen based digital images in sequence over time, stored as data, formed through integers reliant on a computer processor. Popular video is then the production of video on popular devices, of which the image on record holds a relatable process through accessibility, as well as allowing for the image to be read more easily in terms of its unstable materiality. For this research I am looking at four dominant theories:

Firstly, that of structural/materialist film, established by filmmaker and theorist Peter Gidal in his ‘The Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film,’ 1976. This theory presents a framework of which to compare a materialist position to digital video with the established materialist position film. I have chosen this theory as it was the basis of my initial research, and is the most established position of its kind regarding materiality in a visual time based medium, and defines materiality beyond physical matter, such as temporal matter. I also pursue Gidal’s potion of ‘film as film’, as something to be ‘demystified’ through the viewing of a work. As part of this thesis I question the possibility of ‘video as video’, and to what a process of demystification may hold for video.

The second is video and television artist David Hall, and his position that the audience must understand the ‘creative process’ of the video they are seeing. Thus for a video to demystify its own illusion the viewer must be aware of the process. This was an argument against structural/materialist film, in that the audience must have prior knowledge of film to understand the creative process. While there is little writing on this, Hall discusses it through his essays ‘British Video Art: Towards an Autonomous Practice’, 1976 and ‘Using Video and Video Art’, 1978, and throughout his practical application of analogue video and television. This is the basis of my ‘popular’ position in my materialist argument, that using the accessibility of contemporary digital video allows for new levels of engagement with its complex image.

Through my practical use of popular technology I find Vilém Flusser’s theory of ‘quanta’ essential to my argument. As digital video lacks the physical materiality of its comparator, film’s celluloid strip, Flusser’s quantum position moves away from newtonian, atom-based theories of material, and ventures into the ‘quantum weirdness’, where matter behaves very differently to our causal physicality. I do this through his writings, interviews and lectures on the digital and photography through the mid 80’s up until his death in 1991.

Lastly is the modernist position of medium specificity, infamously defined in the essays of Clement Greenberg. Although structural/materialist filmmakers and modernist theorists both excluded film from modernism’s medium specificity debate, and subsequently leading to the questioning of medium specificity’s validity, I still feel that Greenberg’s writings on defining a medium in and of itself are useful to this thesis, and to the understanding of subsequent post-medium theories.

While these theories stand out in my position, I also look towards contemporary media theory around video, which is often lenient towards post-media theory. I use the basis of the above makers and theorists to question these methods

I have chosen to use references established in the early 70s to mid 90s due to the subsequent move to ‘moving-image’. This medium-less approach began to gain traction around this time, of which today moving-image has become the sibling term to cinema. This brings me to a fourth voice, Clement Greenberg, and his position of medium specificity. I have not included Greenberg as one of my initial thinkers due to the tensions between structural/materialist film and its modernist understanding as ‘scientific media’. While I do see Greenberg’s approach to medium as useful, used as a reference in my thesis, his voice is focused on defining ‘medium’ in its purest form

While these are my prominent voices, I also look towards contemporary media-specific theory around video and the digital. This is often a post-media argument, of which the definition of video itself becomes questionable, yet it is in these theories that the debate of digital media as an ‘oxymoron’ highlight areas of development towards a material position of video, only one that does not ascribe the notions of stable, plastic, physical materiality, looking towards notions of materiality in the unstable, malleable, code based matter of the digital, and thus, of popular video.

My research into video’s materiality began when I enrolled onto Video Art Production BA, at UCA, Maidstone in 2008. The course had a heritage of producing experimental film and video makers, and was originally founded by pioneering video and television artist David Hall in 1972. Hall began the course under his own term, ‘time-based media,’ and while the course went by many titles over the years, it continued its media-specific heritage, in which the specific qualities of film, television and video remained points of interest, yet the course, and its campus, were closed in 2013.

Here I was introduced to the history of experimental film and video by Prof. Nicky Hamlyn, of which I took an interest is the works of structural and structural/materialist film. What fascinated me about this work, having never seen anything like it before, was the conflict it presented, as the video work we discussed always seemed to lack the material simplicity of British structural/materialist filmmaking. Over the course I experimented with various different forms of materiality in video, such as: light as material, through projection; facilitator as material, using the devices sculptural qualities; time as material, though live video; and audience as material, though participation. Yet none of these answered my question: what is the material base of video?

I was not the only graduate from Maidstone to have these materialist interests, as other associates of the course (through its many titles) went on to research various forms of materiality in film and video such as Simon Payne, Gareth Polmeer, Cathy Rodgers and Jennifer Nightingale. The natural progression for these artists was Visual Communication at the Royal College of Art, London, where they developed their materialist interests as MA, Mphil, and PhD students and tutors, through the continued teachings and guidance of Hamlyn and art historian A.L. Rees.

Rees had moved to the RCA from a previous incarnation of Video Art Production at Maidstone, as head of research in Visual Communication (another course with many previous titles). I decided to follow suit in my endeavour into the materiality of video, and enrolled into the Visual Communication course at the RCA in 2011 on their ‘moving-image’ pathway, where I was lucky enough to spend time with Rees, who generously broadened my understanding of the history of experimental and artist film and video. The moving-image pathway was closed in 2015.

One of the many video artists/filmmakers Rees introduced me to was Simon Payne, who had recently finished his PhD supervised by Rees, titled ‘Materiality and Medium-Specificity: Digital Aesthetics in the Context of Experimental Film and Video’. The first work I saw of Payne’s was New Ratio, 2010 in one of Rees’ legendary film seminars. This was a pivotal point in terms of my position towards the potential of video as an artistic medium. Previously the video image had felt either a consequence of itself, as a form of documentation, or highly professionalized, in a pursuit of synthetic complexity. Payne’s simple yet immersive flicker structures caused me to want to move away from the approach I had brought with me – that of materiality around the projected image and its interaction – and concentrate on the image itself.

Yet there was still a problem, as although Payne’s videos were an inspiration, they did not answer my questions of materiality in video, focusing on the interval as a material methodology, while not addressing the fundamental matter-ial of the image and its movement.

Film’s materiality is found in its celluloid strip, of which structural/materialist filmmakers priorities as the foundation of the filmic image over time, as the base of its illusion as ‘moving-images’. This is a physical process, of which the immaterial projection of light on the screen forming movement can be ‘demystified’ through its understanding as coming from its physical material base. This was defined by structural/materialist film founder Peter Gidal, in a process of presenting ‘film as film’, as to present its own ‘coming into presence’.

This process of demystification was not in the methodology of Payne, and other influential video artists such as Gareth Polmeer and Nicky Hamlyn. These artists approached video through editing software, altering the image in postproduction through meticulous sequencing of integers. Here the demystification process revealed the structure of the image sequence, but not the materiality of it, pointing towards structuralism rather than materialism. While the integer is a materialist factor attributed to video in terms of ‘material time’, it is not the matter of the image itself, of which the integer still plays a role, though not through the defined parameters adopted from film’s celluloid by editing software. The digital freeze frame is in itself an illusion, as the video image is always dynamic. Thus working with any stable structure in video pivots on the illusion of stability, and thus raises cause for demystification to the materiality of it, and the subsequent structure in which it operates (discussed in chapter ?????).

Around this same time I began using my smartphone to make videos after seeing the video footage of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s televised overthrowing on the news in 2011. The footage was shot on camera phones by locals and rebels that recorded the event and uploaded them onto the internet. It was viscerally real, in a way I could not describe. I initially began drawing freeze frames of the video on YouTube, as the image began to loose its horrific content, becoming blocks of colour and form. The footage, shot on poor quality camera phones, presented a new materiality in the way these colour forms are produced, losing their subject as content, becoming more prevalent in developing and/or compromised technology, such as the scale of a camera phone. This then presented a conundrum, as the real-ity of the image was so intense, yet the image was clearly a construct, one in which the content is interpreted through these impressionist readings of reality.

Here I saw the image itself as a material structure, though still in a way I did not understand. I began exploring this through single-shot smartphone video experiments. These works presented an image that forced the recording to differ from the event by entering new temporalities with the image in realtime. Paper, 2012, used a sheet of paper on its side, which I waved in front of the camera under a florescent light. The lights flicker, imperceivable to the human eye, was picked up in bars down the image, which was then further elaborated on in Light I & II, 2012, using a flashing bike light to produce further distortions. And while these works presented an entry point to the material structure of the video image, they still felt limited in their scope.

What I realised from these videos was the importance of time. Video operates in very fast temporalities, so as another approach I decided to shake my camera rigorously, and examine the results. These videos, later dubbed ‘shaky cam’ by fellow RCA student and since collaborator drawer Phil Goss, became a continued approach. This was established in Structure, 2012, in which I shook an iPhone 4 with a modified zoom lens against the image of a crane. The same downward scanning process that produced the abstract images in Paper and Light was now restructuring objects into new forms. Here the crane produced curves as the camera passed back and forth, becoming combined as a triple helix upon their sequencing as a video. This became a continued methodology, of which the limited abilities of the smartphone’s camera caused distortion within the image. Here I found an approach that accessed a possible materiality of the image, yet one I continued to struggle to define in terms of materiality. Since then I have produced over 150 smartphone video experiments, all archived on my website.

Looking further afield, video had began being used more regularly by students on Fine Art courses, developing into ‘moving-image’ pathways and stand alone courses. This was relatively new, as previously ‘moving-image’ was not featured on many Fine Art curricula. Although many schools began accommodating film and video, they rarely pursued the same ethos as Hall, Gidal, Hamlyn and Rees, focusing on the image’s ability to move as a source of information, able to present content separate of itself. Hall defined this as artists ‘using video’ and those aiming to ‘define video as the artwork’. While Hall argued for the latter, these schools used video, through the post-media rhetoric of moving-image. 

As moving-image has no medium, the media itself became extraneous, with world leading galleries not mentioning the presence of a medium at all, defining film and video on equal terms as ‘moving-image’. Alongside this I’ve seen a noticeable rise in videos by artists approaching (pseudo)essay-film, (pseudo)documentary, (pseudo)narrative and (pseudo)documentation, as artists no longer define their position, choosing a more ironic self-awareness, yet these postmodern tactics become problematic when there isn’t a self to be aware of.

For painting, sculpture, literature, architecture and other established modernist subjects, they had a position to rebel against in their ironic self awareness, something film and video does not have. While film came closest in its structural and structural/materialist pursuits, neither the makers of it, nor the modernist theorists attempting to define it, would accept film as part of a modernist, medium specific pursuit. Alongside this artists such as Hall, Nam June Paik and Stein and Woody Vasulka were marking out their position to video, often through minimalist influence and reduced to the essence of video. Yet this too presented the same issues as film, in which video as a medium was not defined in terms of modernism.

This became a much wider issue, as film and video became a catalyst for the post-media age, arguing their lack of medium specificity relinquished the role of specificity all together. While Maidstone and RCA managed to continue this spark of specificity to a greater extent than most, the wider consensus became that of the ‘moving-image’, of which a modernist position is arguably impossible as it fundamentally opposes its own media specificities, while setting anchor in postmodernist, post-media, and post-medium theory.

Through this time though, video was met with another issue – it wasn’t finished. Video has spent it’s entire existence in development, progressing to the position it is at today, with each step being considered its peak. With this, defining video at any of these staged becomes a problem, as when an artist such as John Smith begins engaging with the magnetic strip of the video cassette, such as in ??????????, 198?, the technology has progresses, as this cannot be applied to a DVD, which Nicky Hamlyn questioned how this could be incorporated into someones practice, of which few if any manage to before it developed again.

It took almost a century for film to ground itself into a materialist practice, and painting, sculpture, architecture and literature centuries to establish its modernist position. This was done by practitioners having access to the medium/technology/skill set/apparatus/subject, of which, to the most part, there were a select few who pursued it regularly.

Today video has found a moment of calm in its material development (discussed in chapter ????), of which digital video is being used at an accelerated and proliferating rate. With this collective use, I feel that there is a way of understanding digital video in terms of its materialist position, of which the ‘matter’ of the image can be distinguished and demystified to the same degree as structural/materialist film.

The following thesis researches my developing understanding of digital video as a materialist practice through the idea of ‘popular video’ that I initially stated. I do this through the examples of both popular culture, including cinema, television, social media and online video; and more defined materialist approaches of structural/materialist film, early experimental video art, contemporary structural video and my own practice. These form examples of how video is being made and viewed for the mainstream audience as a form of first hand demystification, and received through pseudo-demystification as a cinematic convention through this developing understanding of the video image. Through this variable awareness of video’s presence within its own image I find a materialist practice, of which defines my practice.

My approach to making is not to present findings through making, but to make work naturally, and reflect on them through this research. The writing does not result in work, the writing is a result of the work. Thus the direction of the practice can take many forms, which is not of primary concern as this cannot be structured. What is important is that the work is made, the materialist positions that are presented, and how this influences ‘popular video’ and its materialist position.

To do this I compare my practice and subsequent theory to existing models around video, such as hybridity, moving-image, post-media and the digital in a philosophical pursuit towards ‘popular video’. I do this specifically through the writings of Vilém Flusser’s position of ‘quanta’ which has been fundamental to my understanding of video as a material process, though one very different to film. This requires a different form of materialist practice, one that is not bound in physical materiality, which is only physical due to the matter of the material being physical.

Until recently, video has required a specific physical support to store and carry its image. This was initially a cassette tape, most notably the VHS. Taking several other formats before this, each development required its own specific hardware for playback on a monitor. This carrier stored information as an analogue signal on rolls of magnetic tape, and while they all used this similar method, each development made the prior format obsolete. Following this was the compact disc, which also took on several formats, currently the BluRay, which stores the image as digital data burnt onto a disc. While each development here still required an upgrade in hardware, prior carriers, such as CD and DVD are both playable on the new hardware, i.e. a BluRay player can play a DVD, but a DVD player cannot play a BluRay.

The problem with these formats was their need for physical material change. Upgrades were found in the hardware used, rather than the way existing hardware operated. Today video has taken on a form that no longer requires a physical carrier, as a data file. While the file requires physical storage, in the form of drives, this is not the carrier, as the video file does not need one. Instead the video file is recited from one computer to another, and inscribed from one drive to another, making the physical carrier, and its specific reader obsolete, and with this, video can develop without the need for physical change in terms of its physical form. And here we find a moment of calm in the development of video, where digital video takes on its true form extraneous of its carrier, most notably established in 2005 with the creation of YouTube.