PUMP: THE ART OF FILM IN THE AGE OF DIGITAL REPRODUCTION
— Walter Benjamin had it wrong when he spoke of the loss of “aura” in the age of mechanical reproduction. In his essay, film has all the radiance of a postcard. Perhaps he was always wrong? In that place, time, audience, projection speed and print damage meant each screening could have its unique flavor and memory. Seeing Hollywood features in the balcony of a Newark, New Jersey downtown theater, its floor crunchy with popcorn, sticky with candy and noisy with audiences who did not hesitate to speak back to the screen, is one such example. Experiencing Do The Right Thing in a spic & span New Jersey shopping mall with a largely white audience who walked out head bowed is another. Going to a drive-in movie as a pre-teen where the prints were so beat up and “reproduced,” the advertised pizza looked like nothing but a bloody bruise slipping off the screen – hysteric materiality – unforgettable.
Now, with the rise of digital reproduction, its endless and presuming exact cloning – it appears film has become rarer and rarer, and thus, full of aura. Film has no longer the pretense of an infinitely repeatable production but exists as a nearly extinct species. Its glories renewed, revived and praised when a preserved print is shown – shockingly precise and at full resolution – a silky shine clinging to its industrial past. Not so much nostalgic, though there is some of that operative – but rather, a physicality, a depth, a “look” that neither video, HD, nor digital can project. The rise of these new technologies successfully redefine film: celluloid as industry is defunct, hail celluloid as art!
Examples abound. The print itself becoming rarer and rarer as stocks go out of production – whether Kodachrome, acetate print stock altogether, or reversal ultimately. The print becomes unreproduceable. Films that were shot in or printed in Kodachrome can be so no longer. Thus, the five copies of my film Ornamentals (1977) are now a limited edition. Or Nathaniel Dorsky, an artist who has shot Kodachrome exclusively, is experimenting with other film stocks but cannot get the same contrast or reds that that original camera stock contained. As aspects of prints fade, much as a painting might crack or become dirty over time, the film begins to disappear. The 100-year history of film is chockablock with lost originals and/or prints and now, prints can’t always be recovered because of fading or breakage. Such an example, Mutiny (1982) used workprint to cut in with reversal original. Workprint was/is developed differently than original. It is not intended to last and indeed it has not. It has gone red – the magenta that celluloid aspires to (as with tulips, whose original color is red). This means there is difficulty in getting the footage to what it was; this means only one print remains without scratches, cuts or broken sprockets. Thus Mutiny is a mono-print, the only print. The implications are large: I hesitate to show it except at forums where the projection is controlled and I am in attendance. Suddenly a populist medium has become that of the specialist.
Perhaps in the more rarified atmosphere of the art film, the experimental film or independent film, this has always been the case. Many prints of Report (1967), which Bruce Conner distributed personally, were actually monoprints, in that he would tinker with individual prints extensively. I have seen at least four different versions in which the montage changes, sometimes in length, sometimes in the image itself. It was a privilege to buy one of these prints that had its cut-ups intact.
Then again prints get scratched. They are such “tender” vehicles of image and emotion (however deep their impact). The scratches disturb rhythms, undo meaning, destroy aesthetics. And there might very well be no existent negative. The film/digital divide makes me think of the divisions between oil painting and acrylic from the mid-twentieth century. I can only hope that just as oil painting survived with small producers, celluloid will as well. Am I being unjustifiably optimistic?
Ironically film is, in some ways, cheaper than digital: does not need computers that change every year, does not need ever-changing software or more memory. Instead its mechanical machines last for 20, even 30 years, and do just as well as they did in their original state. It was Arthur Jafa (aka “AJ,” marvelous cameraman for Daughters of the Dust and Crooklyn) who taught me how to make video look like film. I told my students video could do this. But I lied. Recently shooting film I realized how wrong I was. As of now, film remains, what AJ calls, the gold standard of image making—what “is considered definitive.” A nineteenth century relic then, or is film the definitive icon?
When one sees film, the image shudders, there is a little shake as the film moves through its sprockets – it reflects tenderness, fragility, mortality. Like rockets blasting into space, it has hubris and a mortal life. It recovers and uncovers a world. Like the touch of a lover, it has a remembered feel, smoothness and depth, a purity of complex light. It is silky without flatness. It won’t let go. Perhaps because we grew up with this form of representation, one can’t imagine a world without this satisfaction. How could the blank faces of corporate bottom lines allow this to happen? How could machines replace older machines with less authenticity? How is memory erased? Is the future not a projection in a community space, but rather individual peeks at Vimeo? How can the medium go extinct and yet continue its message?
Personally, I can’t let celluloid go. It’s too much fun. The little yellow packages, that like taxis, take you to and fro over the globe and inside communities, architecture, places and peoples. Film challenges you to lug that camera into the world, to observe exactly, succinctly. Not surveillance, but selection. Not anything goes, but everything possible. Not turn on switch and go, but turn on and attend. You find a corner in shadow to change the film and not expose the “daylight” rolls. You remove carefully the pieces that get “left” in the Bolex. You read a light meter and decide whether to shoot for the shadows or for the light. You refocus. These are skills, attitudes, a philosophy of seeing – that will be lost to automatic switches. But it need not be a battle, no need for automatons.
My memories include that of hand-developing reversal film: when the strip of film comes out of its first “bath” in chemicals, it is a negative image covered with a milky caul. A shock of light (a bulb in our set-up) undoes the caul, reverses the negative image and a positive appears: ethereal, shiny, gorgeous, miraculous.
Alternative to such alchemy – I remember getting a print back from a submission (yes we sent prints themselves!) with a deep scratch down the entire film. Or a print coming back with surrealistic timing, the lab having made a mistake. And of course no DVD to mail in when a curator requests same, no Vimeo for programmers to watch in their considerations. Yes. There is gain as well as loss. No doubt.
So – I say hello to digi-land but I reject it too or want to. We are all taken by our corporate sponsors: so clear and so debilitating. My art determined by digi-world where previously it was determined by Kodak? Perhaps yes, yet the digital cameras, the Canon for example, designed to resemble film, makes China look like Staten Island. Film becomes nostalgic, an effect in corporate software – that removes difference and flattens the affect of the person behind the camera.
Am I being nostalgic myself? Writing evolves – stick in dust, stone, ink, pencil, typewriter, computer – and yes there is that difference and it makes a difference. The means reorders my attachment1. All those years of cut and paste and now there is copy and paste. Digital editing serves as both optical printer and editor. The computer supplies you with a copy machine. NO resistance to multiplication. We are industry and industry is us. We are condensed, packaged, replicated (?) for the future. We mediate the medium. We are the mediating heart of the world we are analyzing and inventing. We are pushing the hearts of the world in and out again, pumping, pulsing, perturbed, perplexed, persistent.2
1From my poem LUST, in A MOTIVE FOR MAYHEM, Potes & Poets Press, 1989
2With hat off to Guy Maddin’s 2000 short film HEARTS OF THE WORLD
Abigail Child was born in 1948 in Newark, New Jersey. She has been at the forefront of experimental writing and media since the 1980s, having completed more than thirty film/video works and installations, and written 6 books. An acknowledged pioneer in montage, Child addresses the interplay between sound and image. Her major projects include IS THIS WHAT YOU WERE BORN FOR?: a 9 year, 7-part work; B/SIDE: a film that negotiates the politics of internal colonialism; 8 MILLION: a collaboration with avant-percussionist Ikue Mori that re-defines “music video”; THE SUBURBAN TRILOGY: a modular digi-film that prismatically examines a politics of place and identity; and MIRRORWORLDS: a multi-screen installation that incorporates parts of Child’s “foreign film” series to explore narrative excess. Her most recent film, A SHAPE OF ERROR is constructed as an imaginary home movie of the life of Mary Shelley.
Winner of the Rome Prize (2009-10), a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship (2005), Guggenheim (1996) and Fulbright Fellowships (1993), and the Stan Brakhage Award (2011), as well as participating in two Whitney Museum of American Art Biennials, (1989 and 1997) Child has had numerous retrospectives worldwide. These include Buena Vista Center in San Francisco, Anthology Film Archive (in conjunction with The New Museum, NY), Harvard Cinematheque, Reservoir, Switzerland, EXIS Korea and most recently at the Cinoteca in Rome. Her work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art NY, the Whitney Museum, Centre Pompidou, Museo Reina Sofia, and in numerous international film festivals, including New York, Rotterdam, Locarno and London. Harvard University Cinematheque has created an Abigail Child Collection dedicated to preserving and exhibiting her work.
Child is also the author of five books of poetry, among them A MOTIVE FOR MAYHEM, SCATTER MATRIX AND ARTIFICIAL MEMORY, and a book of critical writings: THIS IS CALLED MOVING: A CRITICAL POETICS OF FILM (University of Alabama Press, 2005). As a teacher at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Child has been instrumental in building an interdisciplinary media/film program.