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In Search of Sight-Specific Cinema

The conundrum that shadows me is, somewhat absurdly, the place of medium integrity in the age of the postmedium artist. I enjoy the irony, but it's an all too real question. Canadian filmmaker Michael Snow spoke to this quite eloquently at the Experimental Media Congress in Toronto in 2010.1 Looking at differences between the newer and older work presented, he singled out an attention to "qualities" in the latter that were largely absent in the former. By "qualities," I understood him to mean a sensuality dependent on physiological perception and also on an elusive essence somehow interwoven with a work's physical form. The newer work, in contrast, relied largely on an image's representational and associative properties.

This broad characterization is, if true, in no small part tied to the technologies that produced the work, and should by no means be viewed as bad in itself. It's merely change. The crudity of available video equipment simply may have led artists to abandon formal subtleties.2 But as the focus of the present issue is "experimental cinema and the archive," we as archivists need to be concerned with them. The [End Page 99] question is exceptionally pressing in the case of experimental cinema, where so many of the artists' primary interests were embedded in those elusive "qualities." Of course, there are distinct qualities in electronic imaging as well as photochemical works, if one is looking. So in principle, it's not a digital-analog question.

In point of fact, we've been vexed by a digital-analog dichotomy put forth all too frequently. Historically, two camps have arisen, and like factional politicians, each depends on strong passions or rejection (of the old or new) to further sectarian agendas. As Vaclev Havel said, hatred seeks its lightning rod.3 We need to move past that toward an appreciation of forms in themselves, allowing each to live with its unique character celebrated.

As part of that, we need to be cognizant of the challenges of digital media, correcting the myth of its easy replication. Not only is digital replication as challenging as anything in the photochemical realm, it can be more so. Tracing the electronic image back to its analog roots, one finds Stan Brakhage noting that video was an impractical form for anyone interested in color (for example), because the actual hues seen by a viewer were usually dependent on a subjective "knob-twiddling" on an unknown monitor.4 While things have certainly improved since Brakhage's observations, it's not by as much as one would think. We might successfully use current tools to preserve a work, but without appropriate viewing conditions, the enterprise's value is compromised. A focused discussion of electronic image presentation standards is well beyond the scope of these informal thoughts, but I will say that anyone who has presented work at a variety of contemporary venues knows that actual video projection conditions vary tremendously in practice.

So we return to the notion of increasing appreciation of "qualities"—whatever they may be—and of working to present them appropriately. The scale of this problem can't be overstated, and it's misunderstood at even the professional level. Programmers, scholars, and critics understandably seek DVD "screeners" or data streams for home preview, while only the best fully realize that some works will not survive such a translation. All too often, I'll encounter those who say, "I'm a professional. I can imagine the difference." When I hear that, I usually think (not vindictively but observationally) that their professionalism resides in other areas. As Duke Ellington said when asked what jazz was, "If you have to ask, you'll never know." And as someone who works closely with these issues on a daily basis, I know from experience that I myself can't always appreciate the differences until I perceive them directly. I can recall situations in which I was ready to dismiss works as inconsequential on small-monitor viewing, only to realize my error on seeing them in their appropriate context. Now I know better—or at least enough to appreciate what I don...

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