Notes on the Poetics of Erasure

hablemos en blanco
hablemos perdiendo los signos

repitamos el primer y último acto
de ser devueltos
en la cópula mínima
del polvo
en la luz

Hanni Ossott

On a visit to the 2016 Prix Canson show at New York’s Drawing Center, I came across the work of finalist Bethany Collins. She presented two series addressing the obliteration of the written word. The first consisted of practically illegible paragraphs, printed on paper, then torn and shredded except for certain isolated words; the other, a set of loose pages from the Southern Review, in which she had blacked out parts of the text (sometimes all of it) with ink. This confluence of literary and graphic subtraction, framed within a visual art exhibition, led me for the first time to interrogate the operation of erasing as an aesthetics and a poetics.

 

Art history is full of erasure, blurring and coating of diverse nature: we know about petroglyphs obliterated by the elements or the neglect of humans, texts carved in stone eroded by the wind, papyrus faded by water. We have seen x-rays of paintings that reveal hidden drawings, discarded and coated. There are also intentional erasure strategies that seek to add meaning while subtracting content from an image or text, and take the image or palimpsest to be as a sculpted stone; through these erasures, artists dialogue, criticize, abolish. Finally, we deal with the complication of the notion of “erasing” in the electronic realm –deletions that happen in closed spaces and open spaces within themselves–, and the use of erasure as a creative strategy in digital art.

It could be said that the “primary” erasure is that produced by the passage of time and the incidence of nature. Many of the texts from Antiquity that survive to this day contain blank spaces (usually denoted with brackets in transcripts) caused by stains, missing pieces, and wear. The text is thus “half-accessed,” and yet both translator and reader are able to interpret the whole of its meaning and its poetics. For instance, this fragment of a poem by Sappho discovered in 2014:

They whose fortune the king of Olympus wishes
Now to turn from trouble
to (…) are blessed
and lucky beyond compare.

As for us, if Larichus should (…) his head
And at some point become a man,
Then from full many a despair
Would we be swiftly freed.

(Transtlation by Tim Whitmarsh, published by The Guardian)

Researcher and poet Travis Macdonald argues that blank spaces in ancient documents have their own weight within the text: “We read  into them history’s tumult.” Depending on their position in the verse, the punctuation that influences them, the words that precede them, etc., these spaces can lend themselves to a greater or lesser degree of speculation, allowing the reader to participate in the construction of the meaning of the text. This is a good starting point to delve into the poetics of erasure.

In his essay “A Brief History of Erasure Poetics”, Macdonald proposes a continuity between the erasures of Sappho and the work of Armand Schwerner. In 1968, the American writer published the first part of his magnum opus, The Tablets: poems presented as archaeological finds, transcribed by a “scholar/translator” and with the following legend: “(….)” represents untranslatable passages, “+++” stands for missing text, (?) provide variant readings, and “[]” indicate “sections supplied by the scholar/translator.” Schwerner simulated the onslaught of time on a text (of his authorship) attributed to an imaginary society, the meaning of which is presented as doubly opaque. On the one hand, the translator frequently “doubts” his own reconstructions and presents multiple meanings for the same word –which complicates and broadens the meaning of texts. He also eventually intervenes to question the authenticity of a certain tablet. On the other hand, the supposed physical deterioration of the tablets generates absences and, in general, calls into question the veracity of the structures that are introduced. Similar to The Tablets, though with obvious structural differences, is the work of Jackson Mac Low, an American poet and composer affiliated to the Fluxus movement. Between 1953-1954, Mac Low created a “found” poetry experiment with passages from the Bible,  titled 5 Biblical Poems. The title of each poem contains a series of numbers that indicate the number of “events” in each line. Each event, Travis Macdonald explains, is a word or a mark of “/ ____ /,” indicating a silence of the duration that the reader chooses. While Schwerner arbitrarily modified his text, Mac Low used dice to decide how many “events” would occur on each line. We deal with two kinds of “organizing criteria” for erasure: a continuous one, which simulates climate and time, and a discrete one, more attached to the conventional meaning of algorithmic. In both cases, the association of erasure and wear with the antique –millenary tablets, Biblical verses– is evident: the text is rendered inaccessible either by its physical conditions or by its mysterious origin.

Mac Low recommended that readers be guided by their own heart rate to determine how quickly to perform the poem (a biological algorithm). Since the text was created with the explicit purpose of being read aloud, it could be said that here absence is a functional element: the blank spaces fulfill an interpretive function or, rather, serve as a sort of musical notation, as they represent a measure of time and, according to Macdonald, “the physical silence imposed by the poet.”

 

 

Another pioneer of subtractive poetry is Ronald Johnson, whose work Radio Os (1977) is a careful erasure of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Inspired by the musical voids in Lukas Foss’s Baroque Variations, Johnson impulsively bought a copy of Milton’s Poetic Work and began to cross out entire lines. The result is a “poem-by-excision” from Paradise Lost, which can be interpreted either as a derivative of the original or as an original product (and practice). Some, like Anderson himself, say that this is not a mere revision of a text but the creation of something original: Paradise Lost is the space in which Johnson sought to generate a meaning of his own (always in dialogue with the base text); therefore, Radi Os, as an independent text, does not belong to Milton. Travis Macdonald characterizes the excision process involved in Radi Os as that of a sculptor: “Johnson approaches a preexisting work with the knife of a sculptor and carefully grazes its surface, which gives rise to a strong relief.” In his view, the resulting work belongs to both writers or to none, since both the spatial disposition of the text and the vocabulary are by Milton, while the “voids” and the meaning of the text are by Johnson. In this case, erasure is a strategy to generate a “friction” (in Macdonald’s words) between aesthetics and expressions.

A fourth practitioner of erasure poetry (though his work is also painterly) is British writer Tom Phillips, who in 1966 set out to intervene a second-hand book from start to finish, employing techniques such as collage, painting and trimming. Phillips used a forgotten Victorian novel entitled A Human Document, by W.H. Mallock, and called his own work A Humument. Since its alteration began, A Humument has gone through innumerable transformations and has been edited in at least 30 versions. Phillips draws on the text, hides it, mutilates it, highlights it, blurs the line between illustration and type. His selections of words are sometimes arbitrary, sometimes determined by self-imposed algorithms; this renders the experience of reading the novel fragmentary.

 

Continue reading “Notes on the Poetics of Erasure”

Elizabeth Cemborain: Dialog, Displacement, Distortion

This is the English translation of my latest column at La ONG’s blog (it is available here). I only found out about Elizabeth’s (extensive) work a few months ago, and I was very excited to share a few words about her glitch art experiments. This also makes me feel optimistic that there might be more people making interesting digital art being made in the country that I don’t know about yet.

Elizabeth Cemborain (Caracas, 1959) studied Architecture at Universidad Central de Venezuela and later pursued a degree in Pure Art at the Cristóbal Rojas School of Visual Arts, majoring in Drawing and Painting. Nowadays, she develops an artistic practice mainly focused on electronic media and languages, and is probably one of the greatest exponents of glitch art in Venezuela. Her most recent piece –screened at the 68th Arturo Michelena Biennial– is a 42-second video entitled El Puente (The Bridge), and it serves as a starting point for this brief interrogation of Cemborain’s extensive work in the digital arts.

El puente from LA TIZA on Vimeo.

In The Bridge, Cemborain records the landscape as she transits the bridge over Lake of Maracaibo. Those images are later processed to generate interlaced patterns that, in her own words, establish “a dialogue with the abstract-geometric tradition … it is a landscape of a gray, disoriented, and transitional Venezuela.” The gray-blue landscape suddenly becomes a series of broken lines of color, and the underlying image reappears and dissolves over and over during the journey.

Elizabeth Cemborain’s work is closely related to displacements (physical and symbolic), and often stems from meditations on movement: movement as a recurring element of study in the history of Venezuelan art, the movement inherent to electronic displays, movement as the engine of dialogue. This term –dialog– also resonates through Cemborain’s work, especially since she employs mobile devices that allow her to create images that engage in “dialog” with landscapes and objects she encounters.

Trained an architect, Cemborain became familiar with digital technologies before their use became widespread in Venezuela, and though she employed CAD and Mac Perspective to work, her favorite tools were sketch paper and pencils. After 9 years of professional practice, she decided to enter the Cristóbal Rojas School and gradually abandon architecture. Finally, in 2003, two factors influenced a total shift towards digitality in her career: her growing interest in and participation in workshops on contemporary art and culture (including some promoted by visual artist Antonio Lazo), and her experience living outside the country for several months. Regarding this experience, Cemborain recalls: “(I had) no other expressive resource than a simple digital camera and a laptop. I began touring cities and towns while doing photographic and video recordings. My urban tours have unfolded like this ever since: I see them through the movement generated by my actions, and through the language generated by the computer when reviewing the material.”

Cemborain’s first approximation  to glitch as an expressive resource was quite accidental. She explains: “I work with several programs open at the same time. I can have Photoshop, Adobe Premier, Camtasia, and Skype running simultaneously… I exchanged information between them, and glitches began to appear when I moved files from one place to another. After these random incidents, the system often “froze” –which was a prelude to the imminent death of my hard drive. I began to observe what movements could generate the glitches, initially to avoid their appearance and then to generate them intentionally.” Hers is, therefore, a truly organic approach to the technical error; a practice that stems from pure aesthetic experimentation and curiosity about the limits and failures of a device.

Since her first experiences with glitch, Cemborain has incorporated error into her work by using glitch simulators. She has also experimented with direct intervention in executable files: “I have performed ‘parallel experiences’ in which I introduce words in the binary files of the frames. I have also achieved interventions with sound factors through audio editing programs. Often the files are rendered unreadable, but on other rare occasions that can be opened with graphic editing programs.” In addition to producing and collecting glitches on her computer screen –and perhaps inspired by the transformative movement inherent to the intentional generation of technical error–, Cemborain has developed a discourse that unfolds as a sort of constant dialogue with her surroundings, the landscape, the Other. Glitch is then configured as an element of mediation; it represents Cemborain’s hand appropriating preexisting images to turn them into patterns of light and color.

Cemborain’s inclination towards abstraction –or an image’s deconstruction in chromatic patterns– is especially tangible in her portfolio and in her personal Instagram (where she shares short videos and images, “immediate works” created in her phone). Her “dialogs” with the work of other artists (for example, during her recent visit to Miami Art Basel), developed from encounters in exhibition spaces, are also frequent.

fig6
Dialog with Hayfer Brea’s Registro de Territorio

Aesthetically and technically, Cemborain’s work is a fundamental exponent of Venezuelan new media art, but it is tempting to draw a vague relationship with kineticism –the  reference most contemporary Venezuelan visual artists must confront. For Cemborain, her own work is intimately linked to movement insofar as movement is the “generating principle” of her work from beginning to end. This reflection leads, in turn, to consider the concept of motion in the context of recording and processing data: the artist transits the space (the city, the landscape, the gallery) with the camera in her hand, performs a digital zoom into the object, and then subjects the file to a series of movements within the “post-production” device to generate errors and distortions.

Urban landscapes are also recurrent protagonists of Cemborain’s work, and it is important to note that her approach comes from movement even if the final result might be a fixed image. In her recordings, the camera (or cell phone in a horizontal position) becomes one with the body; after digital processing, the final work is usually a chromatic abstraction of the landscape based on the “sweep” generated by the camera. Cemborain says: “When reviewing my videos frame by frame, I discover areas of interest precisely in the lapses when movement has been present. When I expand these interlaced frames, new ‘synthetic’ landscapes arise, composed of fringes and rhythms that dialogue with the aesthetics of geometric abstraction. I am attracted to the moving image, and I feel that it is the central link and generator of my work.” The movement of the body (and therefore of the camera) is then seen as the aesthetic principle and main resource of her “synthetic” technique.

I have inserted below some images from the Displacements series that effectively illustrate this dynamic process: touring Times Square at dusk, between hurried crosses, Cemborain records the movement of her own body, the movement of the LED screens and flashing signs, and the movement of bodies around them. The displacement of the camera/body produces images that can be situated between pictorial abstraction and glitch art.

perception
Desplace
gust-1
Gust 1
desplace
Perception

Elizabeth Cemborain shares influences and even thematic interests with certain traditions in Venezuelan art, but her approximation has few precedents. Landscapes, politics, dialogs with the past, are all addressed in her work from the mobile –closely related to the playful and the unforeseen– and from the digital-corrupt as a metaphor (a key factor to differentiate glitch art from a “natural” glitch). She is one of the few Venezuelan artists with a long career who have developed a profound discourse using digital technologies in each stage of their creative processes. Her work contains a fresh conceptual proposal in regards to thinking about the environment as flexible and malleable –the landscape that is manipulated by technology to reveal some of its multiple possible appearances. El Puente, the work at the top of this article, is a clear example: departing from Cemborain’s perception of Venezuela as a “disoriented” country, the camera’s horizontal movement might be a metaphor for a journey towards confronting the flaws and challenges that characterize this landscape/country –the conflicts and breaks that become visible in the glitches that interrupt her view on Lake Maracaibo.

Source:
Cemborain, Elizabeth. Interview with the author via e-mail. December 7, 2016.
Coordinates:
Official website: http://www.elizabethcemborain.com/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/elizabethcemborain/
All images are property of Elizabeth Cemborain and are used here with due permission.

Corina Lipavsky and the expresiveness of the error

This is an article/review about researcher and artist Corina Lipavsky’s found footage work. The Spanish version has been published in my column at the ONG Blog 🙂. I interviewed Corina after stumbling across her work online, and it was very satisfying to find some coincidences in our lines of research and interests. She holds a Masters degree in Digital Studies and develops a teaching practice as well.

Corina Lipavksy is a Venezuelan multimedia artist and image researcher based in Bogotá. Her practice involves digital art, animation, performance, installation, and sound art. Through each of these media she develops investigations on the notion of “poor image,” defined by Hito Steyerl in her essay “In Defense of the Poor Image” (2009). According to Steyerl, the poor image is a “copy in movement,” a highly “shareable” and malleable digital file that loses quality as it circulates through networks and is downloaded and uploaded, even remixed or modified. These poor images, for instance, constitute the global system of digital piracy, but also function as expressive and democratizing vehicles of visual culture. However, beyond their social or economic value, Lipavsky is interested in their aesthetics –the visible traces of their degradation.

fig1
from Cor-rupt © Corina Lipavsky

Lipavsky also explores what she calls “the aesthetics of the error,” which is not necessarily the same as the aesthetics of the poor image. While the poor image is degraded a result of the “organic” process of corruption that occurs over cycles of decoding, the “error” lies precisely in the encoding/decoding of the file –for instance, a reading error might cause an operation to be interrupted. In visual terms, the “error” is usually associated with the glitch: aberrant lines, characters that stack up, corrupted colors, frozen motion, misshapen textures, and any other element that distorts an image to some degree. Glitch art, on the other hand, is the practice of employing these aesthetics of graphic error (the “domesticated glitch” in the words of Rosa Menkman) as a means of expression, through the intentional corruption of a code or manipulation of a device.

 

Few digital processes are perfect and we often encounter disruptions in our use of electronic devices, but we do not perceive those “everyday” errors as symbolic or critical elements. However, glitch art inscribes the technical error within the scope of the work of art: an intentional mistake that is intended to generate a reflection, either on the materiality of the digital image or on a more abstract notion to which reference is made through error. One might say, then, that the “problem” of glitch art arises when distinguishing between a technical failure and an error with semiotic charge.

By employing the glitch in her artistic practice, Lipavsky refers to and reflects on the specific processes of digital media. This discourse is enhanced by her interest in the use of archival and found footage, which she claims to work with since 2005. Her current practice involves illustrations and photographs found through Google searches, as well as stills extracted from classical films that she intervenes and deteriorates.

The Nostalgia series (2014), for example, is a selection of images from iconic films that takes its title from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia. The result of Lipavsky’s interventions are repetitive patterns, horizontal lines, and color blocks. The original palette of each frame shifts completely after this aesthetic reconfiguration, while recognizable figures are duplicated and cut. The image, which in its original state might be evocative and romantic, becomes a violent and corrupt memory.

fig3

Continue reading “Corina Lipavsky and the expresiveness of the error”

The anonymous and the animal in the imaginary of Lucía Pizzani

 

everything has a border doesn’t it? / the edge where the light cannot get in/ until joy knows the original wound.
which is why the earth is feminine,/ and the body, not the soul, cries out in heaven–
March Dawn, Brenda Hillman

 

I have only seen Lucía Pizzani’s work live on one occasion: her solo show Mariposario at Oficina #1 (2013). Since then, I am fascinated by her output and I try to stay up to date with it, so I was glad to learn she made the book The Body of Nature available for free in her website. This publication compiles images of her works, curatorial texts, and reviews of her shows from 2008 to 2015. This article proposes an approximation to Pizzani’s work based on a reading of the book, as I have not been able to see so many of her exhibitions in person. 

Pizzani (Caracas, 1975) studied Mass Communications, Fine Arts, and holds a Certificate in Conservational Biology. She employs photography, performance, sculpture, installation, and video to explore issues of gender, nature, and corporality –  The Body of Nature, therefore, is a perfect summary. Her work is delicate and precise, and could also be considered “feminine,” due to the association of certain practices, like ceramics (and dance, which is also present in her work), with activities developed traditionally by women. In general terms, Pizzani’s work is thematically luminous and dark, serene and turbulent; it constantly confounds and challenges the spectator to unravel what appears to be a formally “beautiful” piece and discover its intrinsic narrative. 

Without much previous knowledge about her research, my first encounter with Lucía’s work stirred up profound questions related to my self-image, my image as projected onto the collective, and the image that the collective returns to me –all of this associated, of course, with my female (straight, white, Latin American) condition. It is from this perspective that I wish to delve into two notions that I felt very present during my reading of The Body of Nature: the anonymous and the animal.

First, Pizzani claims to take stories and artistic references from Europe and South America and different periods, combining aesthetic, cultural and historical figures. This leads to the creation of hybrid and anonymous figures –without specific origin, without time- that inhabit her imaginary, particularly in Las Cáscaras, a piece from of El Adorador de la Imagen. Pizzani also frequently employs her own body, but it is presented in contexts that displace or complicate its identity: in the Vessel series and her body drawings, the body is a tool to generate a trace, and El Adorador de la Imagen Pizzani’s image is displayed performing a dance choreographed by the American Loie Fuller (1862-1928).

In a review of her solo show Vessel (Galería Fernando Zubillaga, 2009) published in El Nacional, curator and art critic Lorena González argues that this body of work, developed as culmination of Pizzani’s MFA at Chelsea College of Fine Arts, is the expression of a “fragmented corporeality, torn between physical confinement and today’s illusions of escape.” This is the result of an investigation that evinces “the vicissitudes of a body ebclosed by the anguish of our contemporary world.”

Vessel (2009) (live action at Chelsea College) © Lucía Pizzani

The room is the enclosed environment that distresses the body. It is through the impression of movement on the plaster walls that the body expresses its desire to escape. Pizzani’s body can only face enclosure through fragmentation, and can only be fragmented symbolically by generating its own traces. Once the action is completed only marks and grooves remain, which have the possibility of identity but are, in themselves, anonymous.

Philosopher and professor Megan M. Burke argues that, from a phenomenological perspective, anonymity is “the place prior to which my body and self are noticeably different than that of an other,” such that ” anonymity is a pure shared existence”. In the case of Vessels, if the traces on the wall are non- preceded by the performative action, they could be said to belong to anyone: Lucía’s footprints are everyone’s.

This understanding of anonymity is problematic from a feminist perspective, because that “everyone” involves the imposition of a single universal referent (the self) denying , therefore, difference (this is the main criticism that Burke directs towards Merleau-Ponty). On the other hand, the notion of indifferentiation is closely linked to the objectification of the body for commercial or sexual purposes. By introducing undifferentiated bodies in her work, Pizzani might seek to replicate in aesthetic terms the experience of social anonymity to which female bodies are subject.

Indifferentiation is addressed more directly in The unknown of the Seine and other Ophelias, winner of the Eugenio Mendoza Prize in 2013. This work refers to the story of “The Unknown,” an anonymous young woman who drowned in the Seine River in the late 1800s (her death was pronounced a suicide, though no evidence of it existed). The coroner was so captivated by the mysterious expression of serenity on the corpse’s face that he commissioned a death mask; later, in the twentieth century, that face became an object of fascination among the Surrealists and other artists and writers.

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The death mask of the Unknown at Sala Mendoza © Lucía Pizzani

FIG5

 Ophelia by John Everett Millais

Pizzani was inspired by the fascination caused by the mask of The Unknown and made it the leitmotif of her exhibition, also replicating it in ink drawings. Thus, she created a collection of “other Ophelias.” She also incorporated press clippings about four female suicides in rivers. The Unknown of the Seine was a dialog between fictional and real women who, in the shared space of “the Ophelias,” partook of the same identity and the same fate, their individualities dissolved in the legend of the death of Ophelia –which is not just any death, but a poetic death, practically devoid of violence, as described by queen Gertrude in the fourth act of Hamlet:

Continue reading “The anonymous and the animal in the imaginary of Lucía Pizzani”

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.

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

Print and Performance: Haikus Without Prescription

Essay for a multimedia project I developed at The New School. This project was awarded Outstanding Exploration of the Poetics of Memory and exhibited as an installation in the 2016 Mixed Messages showcase @ School of Media Studies 🙂

Haikus Without Prescription: “reconstructing an essence” from the web into print

Haikus Sin Récipe (“Haikus Without Prescription”) is my cousin Luis Felipe’s blog. He began sharing his poetry in it in 2008, and worked on it with some regularity for two years, until his sudden death in November 2010. It contains 163 text entries, mostly poetry, in Spanish, English, and Spanglish (there’s lots of that).

http://haikus-sin-recipe.blogspot.com/

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Still from Haikus Without Prescription © Elvira Blanco

My cousin’s blog is one of the few things that reminds me of his time on Earth, even though it is only one island of content in the Internet. His personality is all over it: painfully honest but also elusive, and full of humor, irony, and self-deprecation. Not many of his posts were diary-like entries, but his poems were usually autobiographical and written as responses to certain events of his life. A bulk of them (from the first year of the blog, to be precise) were poems and stories written over the course of several years and which he uploaded in batches when he first opened the blog. Certain themes repeat themselves throughout, like the sudden death of his mother when he was 15 years old, his drug use, his relationship with his father, his flirtation with a queer identity, but also names of friends, girlfriends, and literary and musical references.

I followed the blog since he started it, and every time I return to it I am left with a better, or richer, or different understanding of myself and my relation with him. It is as though our relationship did not end as his words remain to be reflected upon and interacted with. It makes me think about the flexible quality of language, and the intimate connection between language and feeling. It reminds me that we are never the same each time we revisit one same place, or one same thing; that as we change, so can the signification of a text that is always fixed. Above all, it reminds me that memory is dynamic and changing, in such a way that my interactions with the content of the blog actually enrich my memory of my cousin even though he is not present.

Archiving Digital Memory

Could I trust Blogspot to keep the blog safe? Could I allow an unknown company to have full administration of what, to me, is a fragile bridge between life and death?

It is common knowledge that by sharing content across social networks we are playing by a set of rules that include certain limitations of our privacy. Participating in this environment and being weary of these things makes me, personally, feel like online life is very much in the present tense. I don’t necessarily think about my information beyond the foreseeable futurewhat is happening to it today, who has access to it, who is selling or buying it, etc. But I also agree to participating in a space of which I don’t know the expiration date. I can only assume that one day my information will disappear, but I don’t know when that will be. I don’t know when, or if, Haikus Sin Récipe will be deleted from Blogspot.

Many services promise to store our information safely, but these are by no means infallible promises. In “Designing for Digital Archives”, Yahoo! Principal Research Scientist Elizabeth Churchill argues:

Some see (this problem) as a commercial opportunity. GYMA (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL) are exploring the business of archiving, backup, and storage, and services; others, like Seagate’s Mirra Personal Server, Apple’s .Mac account, EMC’s Mozy promise storage and a “data cloud” where our stuff will be safe … forever. Or until we fail to pay the subscription fee. Or until they have business or technical problems. Or, as happened to one of our own interactions columnists, some malicious miscreant masquerades as you and in a click of a button or two, deletes all your precious material. Under most terms of service agreements, users have no recourse and companies have no obligation to restore the “lost” material even if backups exist.

A different side of the issue of control extends beyond our very existence. Certain platforms offer options to guarantee that our online presence lives on after our physical death, or that being “permanent” online becomes easier. For instance, aside from ‘memorializing’ the profiles of deceased relatives -which basically turns them into a sort of post-mortem Fan Page- Facebook allows users to designate a ‘legacy contact’ that will have certain administrative capacities in their profiles after they die, like post information about their funerals, accept friend requests, update profile and cover photos, and download posts and photographs. Google allows users to choose if they want their data deleted after a certain amount of months of inactivity, or they can request their data to be sent to trusted contacts. It also allows relatives to request data of the deceased, or ask that it be deleted entirely. These measures prove that the people behind these platforms are thinking more about the death of their users, but again: It is too easy to forget that servers are physical, and, as any physical object, they too can be overcome by damages and “death”.

Continue reading “Print and Performance: Haikus Without Prescription”

Cristina Tovar’s Electric Dreams and the Archive of Obsession [Excerpt]

When one writes diaries, it’s a retrospective process: you sit down, you look back at your day, and you write it all down. To keep a film (camera) diary, is to react (with your camera) immediately, now, this instant: either you get it now, or you don’t get it at all.

Jonas Mekas


Fragment of a longer essay that I recently submitted for publication… A shorter version [in Spanish] of the full thing was just published in the Organización Nelson Garrido blog, read here. (I just started a column there titled Indexical Poetics 🙂 )

Electric Dreams is an experimental documentary film by Madrid-based Venezuelan artist Cristina Tovar. In her own words, it is an “obsession project,” an attempt at establishing a romantic dialog with the work of the visionary Serbian scientist Nikola Tesla and offering her personal take on its visual imaginary. The simplest way to categorize the film is as a short documentary about Tesla, but in truth it is also about the iconography of electricity and about the filmmaker herself –her interest in Tesla was, from its beginnings, inseparable of certain sensations and images of childhood: summer thunderstorms, rollercoasters, electricity traveling from skin to skin–. Tovar’s initial desire to turn an intellectual obsession with Tesla into an audiovisual project became a six-month long sensorial exploration of his work, of media history, of daily life, and of the self, all of which resulted in the spontaneous configuration of a personal film archive. In this article, I analyze Electric Dreams as a viewer and within the framework of film theorist Jaimie Baron’s concept of “the archive effect,” to propose that this “effect” can be achieved employing footage created and collected by the maker herself though an instinctive, imaginative quest.

Figure 3
© Cristina Tovar

In her 2013 book The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History, Jaimie Baron argues that traditional understandings of the archive and the archival are being constantly challenged by contemporary audiovisual practices: “Although official archives continue to be mined by historians and filmmakers as sources for audiovisual documents, filmmakers have ever more frequently drawn on documents that are housed outside of official archives,” like home movies, home video collections, and user-generated documents from digital databases (p.7) In Baron’s view, these new works call for a “reformulation of the notion of the ‘archival document’ as an experience of reception rather than an indication of official sanction or storage location” (ibid.). Baron has called this experience of reception “the archive effect,” arguing that one can speak of archival documents in a film only insofar as the viewer of the film receives certain documents within it as coming from another previous, primary context or intended use (ibid.). This reformulation of indexical archival documents as a “relationship produced between particular elements of a film and the film’s viewer” (ibid.) is interesting not only to question what constitutes archival or found footage, but to consider in what cases the original intention behind the document influences its reading as archival if the archive effect is a phenomenon of reception.

Figure 1
© Cristina Tovar

As the viewer of Cristina Tovar’s Electric Dreams, I offer my gaze to interrogate the archive effect in this particular film. Baron argues that, as the famous aforism about pornography goes, you “know” archival footage when you see it (ibid.). Tovar’s film presents footage that aesthetically and thematically seems lifted from her memory: As she narrates, via titles, Tesla’s life and work, and offers her own reflections on the nature of electricity, she mostly illustrates her narrative with images collected during visits to science museums, zoos, amusement parks, public parks, and ice rinks. Her footage is shot mainly from up close, which removes context and recognizable location from most of the images (like medusas floating inside an aquarium, ducks swimming in a pond, or lightning tearing through the sky), and results in a sensation of “foundness” in the viewer –they are not easy to place, and have a somewhat mysterious yet generic character. The notion of “foundness,” proposed by Baron, describes the quality of footage that is perceived as not produced specifically for a given film and which, instead, possesses an aura that reinforces its authenticity as an archival document (p.17) –even though it might not come from an archive traditionally understood. In the case of Tovar’s film, this can be complicated even further: Not only is it difficult to tell whether her footage is archival or has been created especially for the purpose of the film, but the process of creation of the film might itself be understood as stemming from the very constitution of an archive of sorts. Tovar experiments with this ambivalence by incorporating more obviously appropriated footage, like short clips from Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Gerry Vassilatos’ television series Ray of Discovery.

Continue reading “Cristina Tovar’s Electric Dreams and the Archive of Obsession [Excerpt]”

Quemaditos and Youtube Nostalgia: The Conditions of the Poor Image in Venezuela [Excerpt]

Over the past year I have been working on research about the circulation of poor images in Venezuelan film economy. This is an excerpt from the most recent version of my paper devoted to the subject. An earlier version will be published by the end of this year in the journal Comunicación (Universidad Católica Andrés Bello).  I am in Venezuela  hoping to complete more interviews and some much needed ethnographic and netnographic research, moving towards an even more extensive essay. I will probably post more about this subject here in the future.

 

The Conditions of The Poor Image

A digital moving image travels fast across platforms and devices. It can be streamed, ripped, downloaded and re-uploaded, appropriated, modified, and corrupted. Adaptability is perhaps the most important distinction from its analog counterpart. But these processes of transmission/adaptation/retransmission take their toll on digital files: their journeys through formats eventually bring about loss of data, resulting in the degraded, precarious images that Hito Steyerl calls “poor images.”[1] A poor image belongs at the bottom of the contemporary hierarchy of images in which resolution constitutes a class position of privilege; a low-resolution image is the “debris of audiovisual production, the trash that washes up on the digital economies’ shores… [It testifies] to the violent dislocations, transferals, and displacements of images —their acceleration and circulation within the vicious cycles of audiovisual capitalism”.[2] A copy that deteriorates as it circulates, a poor image is a marginal product of the film distribution industry that upholds high resolution as its maximum value.[3]

The economy of poor images is a departure from the way mainstream film is traditionally accessed. Steyerl explains that the commercialization of cinema and the establishment of monopolies at local and global levels —about thirty to twenty years ago— pushed independent filmmaking underground, and it was individuals circulating copies within small groups who kept experimental, militant, and essayistic cinema alive. But more recently, with the appearance of online streaming services, these images have begun to resurface on open platforms like UbuWeb and YouTube.[4] The possibility of P2P sharing and free downloads has also made files widely available, as now they can be saved, edited, and redistributed individually. Steyerl argues that the networks thus created by poor image circulation are global and anonymous, and that they contribute to reconnect dispersed worldwide audiences.[5] In short, file-sharing platforms enable the ‘resurrection’ of content marginalized by the mainstream in the form of poor images, and facilitate its circulation well beyond the limits of a group of interested individuals.

It is clear that, today, someone in a small town in South America with a working Internet connection can legally or illegally stream and download an experimental film created by an artist in Europe several decades ago, but poor image circulation is not only about its own ability to surpass geographical and political borders (just as it is not only about the dissemination of marginalized content, as will be discussed later). Although Steyerl emphasizes that the poor image creates a “shared history” as it travels across the globe,[6] it is also true that it impacts and contributes to shared histories in much more reduced contexts. In the case of Venezuelan film economy, the poor image is a key agent that critically influences how national cinema is produced and distributed. For example, it empowers illegal commercial networks and generates problems that directly impact the subsistence of local filmmakers; on the other hand, it gives way to solutions to problems of access, and configures communities within Venezuelan audiences that harness its properties to rescue an unprotected film legacy.

Venezuelan Film Economies and The Poor Image

The ‘resurrection’ of marginalized films as poor images has implications beyond appearance or content. The fact that they are only available outside the mainstream reveals “the conditions of their marginalization, the constellation of social forces leading to their online circulation as poor images.”[7] As they surface, they raise questions about how they got to be degraded. Steyerl upholds the idea that the poor image is resistant insofar as it continues to circulate in spite of its degradation, refusing to submit to the conditions of exclusion being imposed on it.[8]

001ec949faf114b58a7d0b
Source: lapatilla.com

Hito Steyerl argues that the privatization of media production has gradually become more important than state-sponsored media production, and this has given way to poor image circulation since privatization of intellectual content enables piracy.[9] What is most puzzling about Venezuelan film economies is that, at first glance, they seem to work the other way around. Rodrigo Llamozas, founder of Cameo Marketing Audiovisual and former Distribution Director at the multiplex chain Cines Unidos, argues that almost all of the national films that are shown in the country are produced and/or distributed theatrically with some kind of sponsorship from the state.[10] The state operates through the distribution company Amazonia Films, and supports productions with various funding programs through the CNAC.[11] Additionally, state sponsorship is available to help makers finance transfers to 35mm and physically distribute their films across the country.[12] Therefore, it would be erroneous to assert that the state has preferred to privatize film production in Venezuela; its support simply does not extend to making films available to the public after their theater run.

hermano-cartel
Source: labutaca.net

Hermano by Marcel Rasquin was the domestic box-office hit of 2010. It played internationally, it is available in DVD format in Spain and the United States, and it streams on Netflix and Hulu, yet it was never officially distributed in Venezuela after its successful theater run. According to Rasquin himself, CNAC was interested in releasing a DVD, but the plans never materialized. He was also in conversation with private companies to release DVDs through alternative channels: one option was to sell them in the Farmatodo chain of drugstores, and another was to include it in issues of El Nacional newspaper.[13] Neither possibility came to be, and only pirate copies were (and are) finally available, which Rasquin laments: “What upset me most about the pirate Hermano was not only its low quality, but that it was an offline version –without color correction or credits, and with referential music —which included no less than The Rolling Stones.”[14] Ultimately, Rasquin thinks that those failed plans for distribution represented a moral obligation, rather than an actual ‘good business’ opportunity, and adds: “Movies that do well at the box office are cannibalized incredibly fast in the pirate market, and the truth is that the pirate market has enveloped everything. Legal DVD sales do not exist, and the state is not in conditions to battle piracy. It doesn’t have the time or the interest, either”.[15]

Continue reading “Quemaditos and Youtube Nostalgia: The Conditions of the Poor Image in Venezuela [Excerpt]”

Spatiality in Aguirre, The Wrath of God

My recent interest in exploring the frontier as a theoretical framework in media resulted in an essay about representations of frontier advancement in two films about the Conquest of South America: The Mission and Aguirre, The Wrath of God. It is quite extensive right now and I have been struggling to extract standalone pieces from, but I feel that this video essay I edited does a fairly decent job at summing up the arguments of my chapter about Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God.

Here I focus specifically on the tension between settler and unsettled space that is evident in the film. Plenty has been written about Herzog’s use of landscape in his work (he has also spoken a lot about it), but in the case of my research it was interesting to find how it resonated with arguments made by historians about the physical challenges of the Conquest.

I might add this entire research left me feeling very disappointed in how schools largely manage to make the Conquest so boring for students. I can’t think of a more fascinating subject to learn history about.