Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Directorial Eclipse

It just so happens that yesterday, the day Ingmar Bergman died, the Italian film artist Michelangelo Antonioni passed away too. According to the New York Times:
In a generation of rule-breakers, Mr. Antonioni was one of the most subversive and venerated. He challenged moviegoers with an intense focus on intentionally vague characters and a disdain for such mainstream conventions as plot, pacing and clarity. He would raise questions and never answer them, have his characters act in self-destructive ways and fail to explain why, and hold his shots so long that the actors sometimes slipped out of character.
Creating a post-cinematic narrative today, one that still feeds off of the life-lines thrown out by Bergman and Antonioni, requires a diffferent set of rule-breaking actions and subversive intentions, though some of their initial ones still resonate in my ongoing trilogy of feature-length foreign films. Most obvious for those who have been working with me on these new works would be "a disdain for such mainstream conventions as plot, pacing and clarity," "raising questions and never answering them" and "holding shots so long that the actors sometimes slip out of character."

But slipping out of character is perhaps not the same thing in Antonioni's universe as it might be for the new media / mobile phone visual artist who takes on the forms of arthouse cinema but then applies a social networking (Web 2.0) logic to them. Or so this is what is happening in both Foreign Film (My Autoerotic Muse) and Foreign Film (Immobilité). Slipping out of character is more difficult because we are now operating under the premise that there is no character to slip out of to begin with. Character is bogus. As is plot. Unfortunately, these conventions are still driving many of the new media researcher's agendas as they try to "program" reconfigurable and interactive narratives for the soap-opera, plot driven devices associated with mainstream narrative.

But as I point out in META/DATA, the best way to subvert narrative is via the narrative itself, not these esoteric programming or database driven machine stories. Who has time for that? At a certain point, all that the collaborators who used to work together to produce what we call a "film" would be doing in these programming environments is creating a library of assets for others to play with. The goal? To empower the user to make their own "versions of the moment." That's fine, and this semi-rant is not meant to ridicule the intensive art / technology / computer science research that is investigating alternative "ways of telling," but the issue that is bound to come up time and time again is "What about the experiential quality of the language itself?" -- and in this case, the artist generated language being referred to is not just words on a page or scenes of a film shot from a standard screenplay or script, but an interdisciplinary, collaborative, hybridized, multi-media language that is generated from a team of performer / personas who use their collective behaviors (that take place in asynchronous realtime) as source material for the work that is eventually postproduced.

Perhaps a better model for post-cinematic versioning of narratives would be the mash-up or what I call remixologically inhabiting the language of narrative potential. The net art version of this might be something like The Great Wall of China or, even or moreso (since the backend is more simplified into the background of a flash player), FILMTEXT.

There are sticking points to all of this:
  • Who is the Director and why?
  • Is a Director necessary? (is the Bergman/Antonioni artist-figure a relic of the past, or can it morph into something else in 2.0 webspace and beyond?)
  • Given access to a library of artist-created assets and customized software programs, is the remixologist-in-waiting anything more than a bored culture vulture looking for the next new hit of potentially interactive entertainment? [my sense is that they are much more, although why would they want to remix an interactive narrative being driven by plots and rules associated with most database narratives? Do you think they would rather mash-up (remixologically inhabit) a narrative space that's already been composed by a co-conspirator by putting their own "spin" on it?]
  • Even if it were true that the remixologist-in-waiting is nothing but a cutting-edge consumer (a post-beta tester driving the competitive market and using open source culture to sculpt a postproduction practice into being), so what?
  • Who writes the "action scripts"? (this question is asked at the opening of FILMTEXT too)
  • Is the author/auteur really "dead" and if so, who/what takes their place? The amateur? The social network? The programmer? The open souce ideologists?
  • Why interactivity, and why now?
Over the past few weeks, I have been informally surveying various new media artists, computer programmers, literary writers, "communications" theorists, and art appreciators of all genders, races, sexual orientation, and ages, having conversations about their relationships to different kinds of cultural objects, media/mediums, experiences, and events, and I am ready to report my findings in a very informal way, i.e. via this blog. What I have found out is that, in general:
  • They prefer reading a book to going to a museum or gallery
  • They like surfing the web for new developments in net art and the like but spend very little time engaging with the work, especially if it requires a major time investment
  • They like going to live A/V events that experiment with image/sound/text but prefer it to happen in more of a social setting that they can network in, i.e. pay attention to the performance when they want to instead of being seated before a performance as in a concert scenario
  • They love arthouse cinema (differences on what they love or like or dislike abound)
  • They say that Youtube is better than TV (but rarely articulate why beyond the "user gets to select what they watch when" model)
  • They say their mobile phone is great for texting, talking, taking pix, and maybe emailing if they have access, but are still not sold on the PDA as a major display device for "interactive" anything although this may change somewhat in a post-iPhone portable media landscape (although they don't hold out much hope and who can blame them?)
All of this feeds back into the practice-based art research agenda of my Foreign Film Series and what I keep coming back to over and over again is that Bergman's major trilogy and most especially Persona as well as Antonioni's trilogy and most especially L'Eclisse are much more significant in the development of emergent forms of moving visual art in new media culture than any database configuration I have ever looked at or interacted with. This includes anything even remotely considered user-generated interactivity.

This brings up an interesting question that I will not have a readymade answer for: "Who is the audience for my Foreign Film Series and how will it be delivered?"

Is it the same audience that came in droves for the net art trilogy (GRAMMATRON, PHON:E:ME, and FILMTEXT)? The audience that bought and read (or will buy and read) my novels (The Kafka Chronicles, Sexual Blood, and the forthcoming 29 Inches)? The audience that is curious how live A/V and especially VJ performance may or may not effect post-cinematic work of moving visual narrative? A totally other audience hooked on arthouse films but looking beyond the current "indie" model? Those interested in writing's revenge on the Society of the Spectacle? None/all of the above?

There is no definitive answer. But as a pataphysician who openly creates imaginary solutions for problems that don't really exist, I have a formula I am looking at:

Antonioni/Bergman "alienation" persona effects / long close-ups / plotlessness / lack of clarity + Youtube aesthetic + access to image/sounds/text assets for "versioning" mashups + endless blog ranting and playlisting for more "artist-generated contextualizing source material" = Immobilité

This is all subject to change.

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Monday, July 30, 2007

Another Kind of Persona

Given how much this blog and my new book play with the concept of persona, it should come as no surprise that my current work in progress, Foreign Film (Immobilité), is partly influenced by Ingmar Bergman's classic film Persona. Bergman has just passed away at the age of 89:
The idea for "Persona" came to him after seeing his friend Andersson sunning next to Ullmann, a Norwegian actress who became Mr. Bergman's companion and muse for many years. Struck by the resemblance of the two actresses, Mr. Bergman decided "it would be wonderful to write something about two people who lose their identities in each other."
This idea of "two people who lose their identities in each other" is not exactly what happens in Immobilité, and there is actually an invisible, third persona that infects the narrative's movement. Also, there is more to Bergman's "Persona" narrative than "losing identity" and in my new work, what at first looks like "losing sight of oneself" becomes part of a longer process where one actually finds oneself (albeit as as a hauntological flux persona, that is, a simultaneous and continuous fusion of becoming marked by what one has already become).

In my second novel, Sexual Blood, the protagonist Mal (short for Maldoror but also Male), is identified on the first page as a figure who wants to "become woman." In GRAMMATRON, Cynthia becomes Ms. A and Abe Golam becomes too many others to even begin listing them all here. The cast of personas in PHON:E:ME (referred to as sonoluminiscent characters) are quick-change artists whose personalities seep into one another. Interesting to me is the fact that I only viewed Persona after having created these works.

Instead of multiple personality disorder in the traditional psychological interpretation of that term, a lot of the figures who appear in my work explore (and do not suffer from) Multiple Persona Becoming. Is it dangerous? This is what Bergman, in some of his films, investigated -- and so am I.

Bergman's "ascetic visuals, intense close-ups and limited dialogue" are hard not to be influenced by if your are at all interested in developing a more philosophically rendered and truly independent narrative art beyond cinema (and beyond "independent filmmaking" per se).

He once said:
The people in my films are exactly like myself [...] Mostly they're body, with a little hollow for the soul.
Of course, the emotional dramas he directed betray these rare self-interpretations and point toward a deeper interior conflict that sometimes only an image can portray. For real body personas minus the theatrical drama, we could turn to obliterature, especially the early nouveau roman work of my old teacher Alain Robbe-Grillet. Some of Robbe-Grillet's films, like L'Immortelle, investigated the imaginary "body persona" as hallucinated by L'Invisible.

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