Video Films About Nothing
Bart Rutten


A new trend that particularly has attained a following in Austria and The Netherlands can be detected at film and media art festivals: abstract digital films. Digital techniques are opening the door to new experiments. The costs are proportionately lower than with other media and the possibilities almost unlimited. While in regular feature films digital technology is being employed to precisely control image and sound, in abstract film and video art the search is for the anarchy in the computer. Like celluloid in the abstract films of the 1960s and paint in abstract painting, the computer is supposed to arrest your attention.

I saw a video work by the Austrian/Dutch duo reMi (Renate Oblach, b. 1972, and Michael Pinter, b. 1969) for the first time during the European Media Art Festival in Osnabruck: "Romutation" (1999, 35'00"), a triptych in which a different primary color (red, yellow, blue) is central in each part. Once that is said, every structure that can be grasped has been exhausted. In a torrent of gradations of color, neurotically recurring diagrams and spluttering and squeaking noises, digital disinformation hurtles over the audience. I call it disinformation because the audio-visual signals provided are not aimed at recognition, but are merely and solely designed to produce a frontal, physical confrontation with the senses. Sometimes one still tried to relate the images and sounds to each other, but changes in the intensity of the image and sound made it impossible to focus attention on both signals, and thus to follow any structuring or relations they had with each other; either the image or the sound demanded full attention. For those who persevered and sat through the whole film, after 35 minutes of pure abstract terror their senses were purged. What remained was an emptiness in the auditory and visual cortex, because brain functions had been sidelined, and the eye sockets were filled with afterimages and the canals of the ears with noise.

The work of the Utrecht artist Bas van Koolwijk, another adept at this abstract digital film style, corresponds closely with that of reMi, with whom he has collaborated in the past. But there are several great differences. Van Koolwijk's work is more minimal and has a clear structure. He himself calls it "a search for the balance between order and chaos." The fluctuations in the works are greater, less fragmented than the work of reMi, and sequences frequently play with the dividing line between whether there is a signal or not. In addition, his works are also shorter in duration, about three to five minutes (the ideal length for a song), which make them easier to grasp.

As well as, and in contradistinction to their threatening aura, works of Van Koolwijk and reMi also have a playfulness in composition which betrays the delight in the process by which they were made. It is an long, drawn out process of seeking the right sequence, the right diagram, in which it is not so much construction but rather experimentation which is central to the production process, and with it the decision of whether the result will be preserved or not. Thus composition proceeds without restraint, since the "undo" button offers a potential way out, if necessary.

Bas van Koolwijk combines analog with digital failures by messing around with the wires between the computer and the video, or exporting the image sequences created into an audio mixing panel in order to create his sounds via this analogue "detour." Says Van Koolwijk, "Thus there is always a moment of delight, every time it happens, when you have gotten the monitor crazy enough to repeat those image sequences. At that moment I am also curious about how the sequence sounds. The pulse of the image and sound can then be the same, because the essence of my work does not occur in the computer, but in the triangle computer + video + picture tube or beam/sound. I am chiefly interested in the pulse itself."

"We operate from overload and hope to reach a new land with these digital films," says Michael Pinter. "It's a matter of constantly feeling out how far you can go. We are not interested in a meaning, a political message or critique of the medium, but seek the physical experience of color and sound... The films are constructed from files with loops of disrupted video and audio signals, what are called 'fuck ups.' You can make these by, for example, interfering with the signal by speeding up the picture, or, on the other hand, rewinding while reading video images into the computer. It is searching for the signal for the sake of the signal itself. Thus what was being read in is of no importance. You only look at the color patterns that are produced."

In doing this, the video signal is completely stripped of its extrinsic representative character and selected only for its structure. For that the most extreme, generally unused possibilities of the computer are sought out. This conceals a reactionary attitude toward the computer. While in regular film and video production digital technology is employed to gain total control over image and sound, precisely on the frame, in work by reMi the search is for the uncontrolled, the anarchy in the computer. The computer is not a servant in the production process, but is allocated an autonomous function.
"The disruption process arises from the sum total of a number of conditions/settings," Pinter explains. "For instance, by allowing a particular version of Adobe Premiere to run in a Windows environment, so that the computer becomes irritated and itself produces images. Because the signal is disturbed, it flips out and begins to live a life of its own. As soon as you open the file of the video signal you read in, the structure repeats itself in the frame. Files of this sort are the basic foundation images for the film. We don't make any further alterations to them or lay any effects over them, because it is precisely from pure disruption of this sort that we want to work. We compose the films by combining different fuck ups with one another."

The makers speak of fuck ups as the point of departure for the films and call the creative manipulations "transmutations," terminology that reminds one strongly of "glitch" related art. A glitch is a deliberately sought disfunction that serves as a building block for the composition and its specific, fostered for the agitated character of its tone or image. It is a way of working that has a following in contemporary electronic music and is founded on an extreme urge to experiment. It is a search for untrodden territory, which now appears to be reachable for the first time by means of digital techniques.

This manner of working with the computer image is completely new, because the apparatus and software to do this has only been available to consumers for a couple of years. Yet the image that is created appears to be founded on an older tradition of experimental film that enjoyed its heyday in the 1960s and '70s, the abstract film and the "direct film" and abstract video art. Then too new apparatus came to be available for artists, who profited in this way from the democratization of technology. In the '60s and '70s this involved freer access to recording techniques as the 16mm film camera with synchronized sound and the video camera were launched on the consumer market. In a certain sense this contributed to the flowering of experimental film. For instance, by scratching the celluloid stock Len Lye (in his case beginning as early as the 1920s!) and Stan Brakhage sought an abstract film language that was not based on recording reality and was stripped of narrativity. In electronic videos by Nam June Paik, the Vasulkas or the Dutchman Livinus van de Bundt, the electronic signal itself was thematized. Many of these abstract films and videos were discussed in the visual art discourse and compared with painting. In this, the emphasis was particularly on their makers' orientation to their material, comparing their use of celluloid and the video signal to the way in which painters in the modernist tradition used paint.

Since the 1990s there has been a second phase in the democratization of film and video technology. The accessibility of post-production technology has now increased enormously through the availability of more powerful computers, which can be outfitted as complete studios. It is therefore the montage process - the act of intervening in the material (whether shot or otherwise) after the fact - that oversteps the boundaries of representation, or throws them entirely overboard. Today it is particularly artists and filmmakers who are pushing their formal experiments to the limits by means of the new possibilities of digital technology, and seeking the new opportunities hidden in the apparatus. As in the 1960s, it would seem that the object orientation of the signal is important in this. With the coming of the computer, it is the digital signal which in a comparable way has become central in the work.

One could perhaps best characterize these video experiments with the words that Lev Manovich used to describe the whole of digital cinema, namely as "painting in time." Manovich poses the question of whether we can still speak of cinema as an art/medium that is based on an indexical link with reality (or more simply, based on the reproduction of reality), now that many films are being made with the assistance of techniques involving digital manipulation. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Robert Zemeckis, 1988), Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) and The Matrix (Andy & Larry Wachowski, 1999) are perhaps the best known and most discussed examples of films that made the integration of digital image manipulation techniques visible (or perhaps better, invisible). According to Manovich, with the integration of digital technology the development of film has again returned to its first stage, the animation film, and it can therefore again be classed as a form of painting. (See L. Manovich, "What is Digital Cinema," in P. Lunenfeld (ed.), The Digital Dialectic (MIT, 1999), pp. 172-192.)

The interface of visual manipulation programs also works hand in hand with this. These use stereotypical icons such as the brush, eraser and pencil. Here too Manovich's characterization of digital cinema can be recognized. The new crop of digital filmmakers can be seen as abstract painters in time. It is therefore striking that many of the artists have a past history as painters, and have thrown themselves into the new medium out of their fascination with the use of color, and particularly with the physical power of light in combination with techno-sounds. As said above, it is primarily an orientation to material that expresses itself here. In exactly the same way that the celluloid was emphasized in the abstract films of the 1960s and paint in abstract painting, the computer must be conspicuous as the central, key tool in the production process, in contrast to the use of the computer in regular film.

The process by which digital films are made displays one considerable difference from painting, and also from the older forms of abstract film, a difference in the financial sense - and, connected with that, in the creative sense too - that contributes to greater freedom for the creative artist. It seems that the production process changes fundamentally when one composes with computers. Because in the computer the signal is uncoupled from the carrier, with the digital process the production phase involves no extra costs. The fact is that trying out any number of different versions on the computer therefore has no consequences for the end result in a material sense. Only when the signal in its definitive version is transferred to video or cd as the distribution format does it become comparable with film or canvass.

Within the computer the signal itself has an ephemeral nature and can be endlessly replayed and copied without wear or loss of quality. Thus, when compared to other media, this information storage technique has within it a greater freedom for experimentation. With film, treating the celluloid with acid, for instance, will have a definitive result, just as an extra layer of paint on a painting can only be undone with difficulty. The artist must thus be more sparing with interventions on the canvass or with film, because the experiment will almost always remain visible on the bearer. Software designers have handily taken advantage of this and optimized this ephemeral intermediate phase in the creation process by introducing an "undo" button in between the icons from painting. This is an function that is of essential importance in the use of software, because every step is reversible again with a click on your screen. The question of how something might look is easy to answer, and this promotes the potential to experiment. The freedom for intuitive editing is unlimited.

Also, the costs of electronic and digital video carriers are considerably cheaper than their predecessors in film or older video formats such as Umatic and open-reel. There the high costs of the material forced the makers to work more frugally. If making a film or video in the 1960s and '70s was more costly than canvass and paint, now the material costs for making a video are often less than those of a painting.
"I was trained as a painter (1994, HKU)," says Bas van Koolwijk, "but began to work with video for the first in 1998, to make an installation. In the images that I shot then, what interested me most were the 'in between moments,' those fragments that afterwards you forgot you had even shot, really just like in your memory the time between two memories often disappears. I selected fragments for their meaningless character, and with the images and sound that were then 'left over' made a composition for an installation." Before Van Koolwijk began to abstract the signal itself, he had wanted to strip images of their story as much as possible. The result was however too noncommittal. Because the combination of recognizable images implied a new story, the effect remained stuck in randomness. As a viewer you could only sit there guessing what you were looking at, and you were constantly busy trying to combine the content of the separate sequences with one another. The representation in images distracted attention from the composition. Van Koolwijk continues, "Very quickly I became more interested in the qualities of the images and sounds that came in as extras, the interference, the noise, that seemed to have their own language. Here I found the link to painting that I had always made. With these meaningless elements I could compose freely, without being distracted by a narrative. It was chiefly a search for the balance between order and chaos that inspired me."

Making use of an abstract visual language that maintains a direct connection with the medium used would seem a risky path. The outer limits of this abstract language would seem to have been reached already, creating the danger that new works will only be variations on the same points of departure. The question is how long this investigation of image and sound will afford room for innovation and surprise, certainly when this "new land" is reached and it becomes established as a genre in film and video art, losing its radical character. But as appeared earlier, this is precisely a matter of applications of the computer for which the technique was not invented, and thus it is difficult to predict what will follow now, precisely because people will break with the expectations that we have with regard to computer use.

Bart Rutten

This article appeared in Skrien 33:7 (September, 2001) under the title "Anarchie in de Computer" (p. 43)