14 October 2013

Part Experiment, Part Theater

An intriguing piece in the October edition of Artforum, one that deals with a number of things I've touched on here before -- on the artistic use of obsolete media, on the auratic legacy of particular works of art, on nuclear tests in the south Pacific, and about artist Bruce Conner.

The piece in question is by filmmaker and archivist Ross Lipman, concerning his participation in the recent digital restoration of Bruce Conner's 1976 35-mm film Crossroads. The film, for those unfamiliar with it, consists of twenty-three takes of the 1946 A-bomb test at the Bikini Atoll, as documented from twenty-three different angles and vantage points. Having acquired the footage from the U.S. National Archive, Conner edited each shot into a continuouss sequence running thirty-seven minutes in duration, accompanied by soundtrack material provided by composers Terry Riley and Patrick Gleeson.

In the article, Lipman details many of the technical aspects of the project, especially the technological tango and trade-offs between medium-specific characterists of each format. For instance, the usual tasdk of removing damage and errors from earlier prints. in this case coupled with efforts at retaining the optical grain of the celluloid version in a pixelated medium. Or retrofitting the soundtrack to approximate its original pre-Dolby/"sound spreading" acoustic quality. And additional "versioning" the thing in way that befits screenings in a variety of exhibition environs. Naturally, all of this follows in the course of honoring the artist's original intentions and preseving (as much as possible) the integrity of the original work. At which point, Lipman veers from technical to theoretic considerations:

"The perceptual experience of photochemical film is different than that of digital images when viewed on monitors, and yet again in projection. In our work on Crossroads, we thus utilized available color-correction tools to moderate density and contrast, optimizing the image for presentation in contemporary digital environments while simulataneously retaining its 'film' character in terms of grain structure, flicker, and image stability.

While this might worry theorists unversed in technology, such variances are again commonplace, if often misunderstood. Moreover, it is ontologically impossible to replicate one medium in another. In medium translations, interpretation is intrinsically part of the work process, whether one wishes to acknowledge it or not. To presume otherwise and relinquish human intervention in translation is to presume that the technology enabling translation is itself neutral; yet believing so is itself subjective faith. Some would argue that medium tranlations should not be undertaken, period. While I deeply medium integrity, I would temper my own vocal support of it (as I have previously)with the suggestion that although it is essential for some works, it isn't for others. And while I accept the fact that certain works must be lost to the winds of history, not all works in obsolescent media muist necessarily be forfeited. Another type of cultural loss ensues when works that might successfully survive translation are withheld from it, in adherence to a rigid Platonic ideal. Ironically, some works can be if not 'restored' then reimagined or reembodied, precisely in their transformation. The challenge in this enterprise is skillful execution."

Lipman's article deals exclusively with the film as a physical artifact and its transferal into another format. Meaning that while he provides plenty of details about things like image quality, there's nothing said about the images themselves. And what on those images, of the film’s content? The same megaton blast seen from about two dozen perspectives; the magnitude and intensity of its destructive might perhaps ungraspable for the viewer, even when aided by the expanse of a full-scale theater screen, even with the aid of all those abandoned warships anchored on the blast’s periphery to help give the viewer some sense of scale.

In an essay recently published in the journal Incite, William C. Wees discusses Crossroads as an example of what he terms the “nuclear sublime.” Yet at the same time, Wees argues, through sheer repetition – as in the case of Conner’s film – the events depicted may have long ago dissolved into mere spectacle, into an aesthetic experience. By way of illustration, he cites a journalist who, writing as early as 1946, admitted: “After four bombs, the mystery [of nuclear explosions] dissolves into a pattern. By this time, there is almost a standardization of catastrophe.” From the closing scene of Dr. Strangelove to the ironic nostalgia of the 1982 documentary Atomic Café, Wees briefly charts the course by which the nuclear mushroom clouds went from being a symbol of inchoate dread to “political kitsch.” Somewhere along the way, it still carried enough resonance to serve in an advert for LBJ’s 1964 presidential campaign; but by the time I was growing up and entering early adulthood in the latter half of the Cold War era, it was an image that operated as little more than abstract shorthand – pointing in the direction something ominous, perhaps, but largely a signifier that had drained of impact through gratuitous overuse.

I’m reminded, once again, of a passage from Don DeLillo’s novel Underworld; a passage set in 1974 in which a pair of the novel's protagonists -- aspiring artist Klara Sax and her friend Miles -- end up at a social event being held in the Manhattan loft of a mutual friend who happens to be a video artist. Part of the evening's festivities involve the screening of the artist's latest piece -- a display consisting of over a hundred TV screens of various sizes, over which a bootleg version of the Zapruder film asynchronously plays, looped ad infinitum. The shock and horror the viewers first experience at viewing the film (long withheld from unedited public viewing) soon wanes, and eventually the film becomes a type of background decor as some of the attendees grow inattentive, smoke weed, make out, discuss dinner plans, and the like.

“She knew she’d hear from Miles at dinner about the secret manipulation of history, or attempts at such, or how the experts could not seem to produce a clear print of the movie, or whatever. But the movie in fact was powerfully open, it was glary and artless and completely steeped in being what it was, in being film. It carried a kind of inner life, something unconnected to the things we call phenomena. The footage seemed to advance some argument about the nature of film itself. ...This was death that seemed to rise from the steamy debris of the deep mind, it came from some night of the mind, there was some trick of film emulsion that showed the ghost of consciousness. Or so she thought to wonder. She thought to wonder if this home movie was some crude living likeness of the mind’s own technology, the sort of death plot that runs in the mind, because it seemed so familiar, the footage did – it seemed a thing we might see, not see but know, a model of the nights when we are intimate with our own dying.”

Admittedly, this passage is an example of a theme that links a number of DeLillo's novels -- that of the discrepancy of cultural memory as recalled and recorded. Of the gulf between the ways in which particular cultural-defining events and historical momentum that follows in their wake -- the residuum or echoes, as it were -- shapes individual daily lives, perspective, and the limited, compact ways in which these events are represented (and re-represented) as a form of abbreviated and abstracted counter-memory.

* * *

A fairly well-rounded issue of the magazine, this time around. Among some highlights, there's a double review of Paul McCarthy's WS; one pro, one con. On the con side, Glenn O'Brien was bored and unimpressed. In relation to the work's sprawling expanse, O'Brien observes:
"McCarthy has moved into the big leagues of the art of conspicuous waste. Conspicuous consumption is the guiding beacon of fashion. Conspicuous waste is where art can compete with fashion in the biggest leisure-class sweepstakes. McCarthy brings knee-jerk potty humor to the potlatch, advancing flagrant absurdity and inutility into a new territory of entropic cynicism. Sounds like a good investment."
Also in the same pages, art historian Thierry de Duve again takes up the matter of Duchamp's readymades in the first in a series of six essays about Duchamp and the way the narrative of modern and contemporary art shaped up in the wake of his delayed influence.

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