About “Respuesta a la Primavera”: a self-reflection on the poetics of database cinema

Respuesta a la Primavera (videopoesía) from ElviraEloisa on Vimeo.

Respuesta a la Primavera is a recent personal piece of video-poetry. It is a meditation on the connection between nature and the individual through the notions of cyclicality, decay, and transgression. Its text, which is extracted from a longer poem, serves as answer and homage to Spring and All by William Carlos Williams, published in 1923.  

Although this is a linear videopoem, and its course is determined by the reading of the poetic text, its formal structure alludes to that of a database: the screen is divided into four sections in which the clips (most shot by me, some royalty-free footage) that make up the database alternate. Visual continuity only emerges as the words of the poem follow each other. The images that are not text –mostly nature, landscape, and movement– don’t have a narrative relationship and shift constantly. Thus, the videopoem seeks to emulate the logic of database cinema by simulating the presence of an algorithm –a series of instructions unknown to the viewer– that intervenes in a database and extracts from it the clips that are presented “randomly” as the poem is being written/read on screen. The result of this structure and aesthetic is an experience of fragmented visualization, perhaps nervous or frantic at times, in which the order of appearance of the phrases and the arrangement of the images generate diverse yet simultaneous readings.

SRAP1New media theorist Lev Manovich argues that, in contraposition to linear perspective as the “symbolic form” of modernity (as proposed by art historian Erwin Panofsky), the  database is the symbolic form of the computer age; it is how we structure a world that seems like “an infinite and unstructured collection of images, texts, and other data records.” According to Manovich, most new media objects can be understood as “the construction of an interface for a database” even if they do not possess a database structure. This is clearly related to the process of audiovisual montage: the function of the editor (the “algorithm” that operates in this case) is to facilitate the viewer’s access to the content of the database by weaving a discourse or a visual narrative.

Despite a widespread obsession to investigate the “artistic” possibilities of generative programs, I wouldn’t want to press a comparison between human creativity and machinic “creativity.” However, I am interested in the database as a form because it allows for the configuration of open and dynamic readings. In his essay Investigating Film Algorithm: Transtextuality in the age of database cinema, Cristiano Poian argues that database logic is founded on the contents of the database functioning as the paradigmatic axis of possibilities, which can later be mediated by/organized into interfaces or syntagms. In that sense, as the viewers are presented with the syntagm, they might attempt to imagine the database that contains the totality of the clips. The reading experience (understanding the videopoem as a text that contains other texts) also becomes augmented: it is no longer only about reading a poem, looking at images, or associating image and written word, but about guessing and sensing the underlying connection between the elements in the database –to fathom the hidden algorithm and imagine what it has not shown. The experience of visualization is thus amplified to include the absent image.

SRAP4

SRAP2

The images in Respuesta a la Primavera do come, indeed, from a database: an audiovisual archive that I compiled and fed during approximately a year and a half. As I mentioned before, the association that exists between the clips is not narrative, but located in affect. Without a clear objective, I recorded images of more or less similar themes (nature, movement, urban space, landscape) that would reverberate with each other when framed by the discourse I was beginning to develop. At the moment of editing, that discourse was finally consolidated to answer a fundamental question: How to structure together a series of images that have no causal, chronological, or hierarchical relationship? It was necessary to equalize all the visual elements without compromising the fluidity of the poetic text, and the database cinema format worked well to achieve this.

Ultimately, two dimensions coexist in the videopoem: a narrative one that is ‘moving forward’ with the reading/writing of the poetic text (which occupies several sections of the screen but progresses linearly), and one that is purely visual and non-narrative. The flow of the poem forces the piece into a linear structure while the interface hints at an underlying database. Whenever two or more images or texts are on the screen at once, the mind of the spectator seeks to unify the separate elements into a totality, a closed whole. Therefore, one could say that the experience of visualization of a database cinema interface requires constant interpretation.

SRAP3The database cinema format enables the articulation of a poetics based on interior and mutual resonance between the two dimensions –written word and pure image–: the viewer constructs a free, affective link between image and text and between image and image, which is, in turn, determined by the rhythm of the montage, the music, and the arrangement of elements on the screen. Sensations and subjective impressions emerge organically thanks to the instability and absence of hierarchy among the elements: the texts that replace each other or coincide, the images that overlap as they appear, the way text and image resonate despite not having an indexical relationship (or, on the contrary, the way they clash or redound). One might say that the poetics of database cinema is co-generated by the viewer-interpreter and by the author-algorithm.

Bibliography / Filmography
Respuesta a la Primavera. Digital video. Elvira Blanco. Caracas, 2016.
Luers, Will,  “Plotting the Database” in Database, Narrative, Archive, edited by Matt Soar and Monika Gagnon. Montréal, 2013. 
Manovich, Lev. “Database as a Symbolic Form.” Millennium Film Journal No. 34 (1999).
Poian, Cristiano. Investigating Film Algorithm: Transtextuality in the age of database cinema.” Presented in Cinema and Contemporary Visual Arts II, V MAGIS Gradisca Spring School, 2015.
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