A bit after the date, but an article I wrote about poor image circulation in Venezuela was published in the 9th issue of Shift, a journal on material culture currently hosted by the Graduate Center at CUNY and the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU. This is an exciting event as it’s my first article in a peer-reviewed journal, and it also represents the most recent iteration of my research on this issue. In this particular text, I attempted to propose certain additions to Hito Steyerl’s poor image theory that I came up with as I applied it outside of the Euro-American context, with special emphasis on how it works in terms of localized effects. There is plenty of ground still to cover, and more complications of the theory remain to be proposed. The entire issue of Shift (which is, this article notwithstanding, very interesting and multidisciplinary) can be read/downloaded here.
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.” 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”. 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.
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. 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. 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, 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.” 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.
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. 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. The state operates through the distribution company Amazonia Films, and supports productions with various funding programs through the CNAC. Additionally, state sponsorship is available to help makers finance transfers to 35mm and physically distribute their films across the country. 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 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. 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.” 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”.