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Article categories: Guest EditorialsIssue 70
February 18th, 2009

Singapore has turned me into a Formalist. I moved to the nation-state after teaching and making art at UCLA where my students and I were creating films about radical left-wing politics, queercore, borderline radical pornography, rough language and religious criticism. The end-of-semester screenings there were riotous affairs with the visiting parents smoking pot in the parking lot.  UCLA was loose, free, chaotic, outspoken and we proudly wore our liberal agendas on our mediated sleeves.  However, after 30 years of making films and media art that focused on the message, I was suddenly in a country that had a published ‘out-of-bounds’ list – topics that could not be discussed in the media.


Watching "Nine Lives" in the same location where the scene was shot.

I was no longer free to say what I wanted.  If art is a form of rebellion, I had to reconsider my process. Instead of rebelling in content, I had to learn to rebel in form. I had to look closely at the formal properties of cinema and experiment with the machinery itself. I began to examine how the moving image is made and presented: the cameras, the editing systems, the screens. Unlike painting or sculpture, the moving image cannot exist without the machine present.  Each time moving image technology changes, it allows for new artistic and ideological approaches.

The digital revolution is a revolution of process.  A building is still a building, a film is still a film, but how they are made has changed radically. The physical properties of our media have changed because of new processes.  We still call it film, but the digitisation of the moving image has allowed us to deconstruct the total apparatus of cinema and lead us to new relationships with representation.

My move towards formalism, shifting from content to technology, was mirrored recently in the New York Times Magazine.  Its annual ‘Hollywood’ issue – usually devoted to declaring the ‘Year of the Comic Book Film’ or ‘The Year of the Documentary,’ was instead dedicated to the ‘Year of the Screen.’  It is no longer so important what we are watching, but rather how we watch it.

If the formal properties of cinema used to be the sprockets, the celluloid, the projected light, one has to rethink those properties in a digital age.  To do so, I began to breakdown the process of creating and presenting moving images, dividing it into four phases:  Capture, Assembly, Presentation and Context.

We can now capture more than just image and sound.  New sensor technologies have expanded our ability to decide what information to remember.  Even the most basic digital cameras now have ‘face-recognition’ capabilities — in addition to recording the image, a program also captures the shapes in that image, looking for the ovals that represent faces.  We can capture additional movement, distance and environmental details and have them affect the moving image being presented.

Assembly is no longer the domain of pale, overweight men in darkened editing suites.  Our remix culture has opened the gates to millions of editors who have transformed the assembly of media into a form of entertainment.  This power has made for a new type of detournement.  Chevrolet decided to allow users to create their own commercials for their 2007 Tahoe by supplying the raw materials — video clips, graphics and music.  The results were a classic backfire as the materials were assembled to subvert the message and in the process became YouTube sensations.

New projection and screen technologies are revising presentation a long way from the television-or-theatre possibilities of my childhood.  Optoma recently demonstrated a micro-portable handheld projector that allows a moving image to be projected 100x the size of the screen. Doug Aitken’s film Sleepwalkers, starring Hollywood stalwarts Donald Sutherland and Tilda Swinton, was presented via eight giant projections on the buildings around MOMA in downtown New York. The winner of the Fiat 500 design competition was a car kitted with a projector in the front as an extra headlight — park and play a film on any wall.

Screen technologies are also evolving rapidly. We have multi-touch screens, flexible displays, moving displays, architectural screens and even fabrics playing video. Air Genie has created a 41,000 square foot spherical airship covered with 60 million LEDs, a floating cloud playing video. We watch films on planes, handsets, taxis, ATMs, gas pumps and in doing so we are experiencing a unique moment in visual history — the relocation of the moving image.


Film Still from GPSFilm "Nine Lives".

My first artwork created in Singapore was an experiment in location-based mobile cinema: GPSFilm.  Using a GPS-enabled PDA or mobile phone, the open-source application selects clips based on place — a new context for the moving image. The result is a film experience intimately tied to the movement of the view: the journey assembles the story. As the viewer explores a park, a neighbourhood, or even a city or country, GPSFilm continually ‘reads’ their location and plays scenes tied to those places.  Storytelling becomes a physical, viewer-controlled experience – a journey of fiction ties directly to a journey of fact.

Instead of a fixed art form, cinema has now become a type of experience design, with a film able to change dynamically depending on the location and actions of the people watching. It almost puts theatre-based ‘interactive’ cinema in the shade.

The articles and artworks in this issue of Filter comment on our evolving interface to the moving image — the screen itself.  So, although Screen Play may allude to content, it is more concerned with the shifting contexts being created by our ubiquitous screens.

Leading media archaeologist Erkki Huhtamo places the public super-bright LED screens filling our urban landscapes into a historical perspective to show that our current discourse on outdoor advertising has roots back to the 1800’s.  David McConville, a leader in dome visualisations, discusses planetariums being repurposed as new surfaces for immersive display.  Media theorist Machiko Kusahara writes about Japanese device artist Kazuhiko Hachiya, who completes an odd loop of visual culture by building physical working models of whimsical machines seen in animation and cinema — imagined reality on-screen becomes physical reality off-screen.  Anne Bray, director of the LA Freewaves Festival, has a long-standing reputation for placing video art in alternative locations — including in storefronts along Hollywood Boulevard.  Noah Cowan, director of the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival investigates the raunchy mobile phone films of Guy Madden, one of Canada’s great filmmakers.


Promotional Poster for GPS Film "Nine Lives"

I have also chosen to showcase three artists/groups whose works exemplify innovation and imagination in relocating (and recontextualising) the moving image.  Thomas Fiedler is a member of the Blinkenlights collective, which uses the windowpanes of large urban buildings as pixels in displays — turning architecture into screen. Craig Walsh uses the environment itself as a screen by projecting onto the surface of rivers and trees to reveal ephemeral and mythological creatures. The BioKino group has taken the screen to a completely new dimension by making it a living organism by projecting films directly onto living tissue, with the death of the screen an integral part of the cinematic experience.

As Kevin Kelly noted in the New York Times Magazine, “We are people of the screen now. Last year, digital-display manufacturers cranked out four billion new screens, and they expect to produce billions more in the coming years. That’s one new screen each year for every human on earth. With the advent of electronic ink, we will start putting watchable screens on any flat surface.” This is sobering, even more so when taking into account Guy DeBord’s Situationist credo, “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”

Scott Hessels
Scott Hessels is a media artist and independent filmmaker who has released art and commercial projects in several different media including film, video, web, music, broadcast, print, and performance. His films and videos have shown in hundreds of international film and new media festivals, on television and in contemporary art galleries over the past 20 years. As a media artist, his installations have shown in exhibitions around the world including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, CiberArt in Bilbao, SIGGRAPH, ISEA, the ACM International Conference on Multimedia and Japan’s Media Art Festival, as well as having been included in several books on new media art. He has been experimenting with the cinematic form and his recent artworks have mixed film with sensors, robotics and alternative forms of interactivity. After previously teaching in the Design|Media Arts department at UCLA, he is currently an Assistant Professor at the new School of Art, Design and Media in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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