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.
An article I wrote last year about poor image circulation in Venezuela titled Reacción y subversión: la imagen pobre en Venezuela (Reaction and Subversion: The poor image in Venezuela) is included in the 175th number of Comunicación journal, edited by Centro Gumilla Foundation in Caracas. The entire number is devoted to issues related to audiovisual technologies, and it can be read in its entirety here (my article is 69-75); it will probably come out in print next year.
This is very exciting for me as it’s my first article in an academic journal, and Comunicación is probably the #1 media-related publication in Venezuela. I feel very honored to be in such good company, with other scholars that are still working and producing quality research in spite of the crisis that affects us on a very primal level.
On 09/23 I gave a talk at Librería Lugar Común in Caracas, in which I presented some of my most recent research on poor image circulation in Venezuela. Aside from pretty good insights about other aspects to consider in future versions of my paper (like the really terrible Internet access conditions in the country), most comments left very clear that there is a general interest in discussing and arriving at some sort of solution for the current conditions of access to national film production. Ultimately, we are more and more moving towards getting these images ‘out there’ illegally. This will continue to happen –often in detriment of the makers– in problematic ways, above all through disc-based sales, until more makers take a (creative) stand about the present structures of distribution, or until we rethink film distribution altogether. The time is always right for coming up with new ‘models’ or platforms to do this. I will personally continue to look into what’s going on in YouTube with Venezuelan films.
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.
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.
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”.