Everything Is Moving
Basia Lewandowska Cummings
One by one, online screening platforms have become ubiquitous. Alongside the dedicated hosts that are YouTube, Vimeo, Vevo, and Vine, websites acting as troves for archival film insert the history of the image into contemporary currents. UbuWeb and Open Culture allow Hollis Frampton’s (arguably internet-ready) films to sit tab by tab beside the latest episode of Homeland, or any other serial offered by numerous video-on-demand services. On Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, the snippets we share are moving too. In early January 2015, Facebook acquired its second video “infrastructure” network, QuickFire, to make video “native” to the Facebook timeline. It’s clear why. The amount of moving-image material consumed on Facebook has risen by 75 percent globally in the last year, and by 95 percent in the US alone.
Everything is moving.
If these references feel like an incongruous crush of sites and sources, it’s because they are, utterly and bizarrely and unrelentingly so. Let me set the scene, which may feel familiar. In September 2014, someone on Twitter asked: “Honest Q: Do you ever consciously feel overwhelmed by the ‘quickening’ of daily life? Or inundated by a surfeit of media? Personally, I don’t.” For me, these 140 characters came after a summer of distraction and unease as the strangeness of my visual consumption reached new heights. The visual debris from Israel’s prolonged attack on Gaza scattered far and wide across my networks. GIFs of death. Vines of brutalized bodies. Video news reports of destroyed buildings and the depths of human desperation dispersed freely amid images of summer barbeques and music festivals, apparently seamlessly, and apparently without restraint.
Although much of the captioning that accompanied these moving images was critical, sometimes informative, the vehicle for the images themselves—the infrastructure that enabled their sharing—was not discussed. Nobody seemed to be saying, “don’t look.” Or, “don’t look at this, here.” Or if they did, few were sharing these messages. As such, the confusion of viewing a dead child sandwiched between inane EPIC FAILS suggested a strange ethical pause; an unwillingness to untangle the questions that arise from these weird meetings of subject matter and content. Does the imperative to share now trump the imperative to see thoughtfully? In this economy of images now facilitated by numerous online platforms—which are, as Facebook’s acquisitions demonstrate, ramping up their capacity—not looking has become powerful in its scarcity, and oddity. I didn’t look at images of Jennifer Lawrence’s naked body, shared on 4chan (and I don’t say that to sound sanctimonious). Nor, when footage of James Foley’s beheading started to spread across the internet, did I click play. Following the spate of ISIS-filmed gore, #ISISmediablackout used the refusal of online attention—nonparticipation in the online stream—as a pushback against violence that uses online ubiquity as its haulier. The Charlie Hebdo killers may have had the same timelines and feeds in mind when they immortalized, surely instrumentally, their own violence via live news streams and rolling siege-TV.
A new form of storytelling using emojis and tweeted rape threats is both creating and tearing apart communities loosely linked by shared attention deficit. —Hito Steyerl
What follows here isn’t only about this strange state of affairs. And it’s not an argument that images of violence should not be viewed or circulated on social media. Rather, the experiences of online life that I mention above clarify this crucial time to discuss the consequences of publishing, and sharing, such a vast and limitless territory of moving-image information. And, in turn, to consider an exercise in thinking how this has begun to shape the kinds of images being produced by filmmakers and artists who use this terrain-in-motion as their source material.
What has now shifted, since the mid-2000s and its amped-up broadband speeds, is a streamlined and easy place to spectate. Perhaps the tabular, multifaceted screen experience the Internet can now provide was inevitably to be colonized by moving image. Now, an image never has to leave the network; the quantity is such that we rarely have to look elsewhere for what we want to see. In fact, to gain power—and to trump other forms of communication and media sources—staying online, within the right streams and flows, is to harness the sway of circulation most powerfully. This observation isn’t new, and Kim Kardashian’s ass is a case in point. So too are Mosireen, the Egyptian film collective who, in January 2011, became the most-watched not-for-profit YouTube channel in the world for their documentation of the Tahrir Square protests and subsequent state violence.
In her essay “Too Much World, Is the Internet Dead?” artist and theorist Hito Steyerl speaks of moving-image material not as object, but as “nodes of energy and matter that migrate across different supports, shaping and affecting people, landscapes, politics and social systems.” Defined by an “uncanny” ability to “proliferate, transform, and activate,” moving images have been freed up, democratized. Now, they need only to be routed and rerouted, or hijacked, piggybacked, and recirculated. Mosireen are an example of the energy images posses—an energy that in this case rarely departed a YouTube window, yet provided the most convincing and arguably comprehensive counter-coverage of the Egyptian revolution, assembled from mobile phone footage and media crew dispatches alike. Like Syria’s Abounaddara filmmaking collective, or the Chopcassava group in Nigeria—who documented the largest peaceful protests on the continent as western media were silent—these examples aptly demonstrate David Joselit’s words that instead of just witnessing history, images “constitute its very currency.”
To download in this context of assembly and circulation is completely unnecessary, and unattractive. Rather: keeping images online, stored and activated by use (like money in a savings account, gaining interest through other, unseen transactions), allows for the vast economy of images to keep getting richer, to be reinvested over and over in other mashups, in new works of art, or activism, or reportage. Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker is a good example: it’s a platform that allows its users to assemble and remix video, audio and images via URLs. It exists only online.
Looking to the work of contemporary artists is an example from just one of many corners of online experimentation and practice. In this context, it might seem like an obvious, logical step to argue that these composites—think of Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2011) or Oliver Laric’s Versions series (2009–2012), to cite two popular examples—are just extensions of founding filmic practices, from montage and collage to détournement. But, as Katherine Groo convincingly writes, the world of the online remix is not just an extension of the “modernist modes of fragmentation.” The composite image is “not the digital annihilation of the celluloid archive, but a reinvigorated theorizing of film history that owes and offers something to the living present.” She argues, like Steyerl, that this circulation opens up the possibility of both new film histories, and new futures.
A film like Laric’s Versions (2009), a parody on the using and reusing of images (and the political ramifications thereof), makes precisely this comment, via pornography and doctored images of war. Linking the antipathy of monotheistic religions toward idolatry, Laric playfully suggests that passages prohibiting the depiction of god from major religious texts could be the original dogma for contemporary copyright. This suggestion is made as we watch a clip from an unknown Tom Cruise cam-version film, as Laric compares Hollywood’s dislike for variation and copies to the church’s condemnation of idolatry. In this way, Laric’s film isn’t about the possibilities of online collage. The work lives on, on Vimeo, and defies the contemporary art market logic of scarcity by being freely available. It’s a film that comments on both its site—the internet—and its source material—the internet—and the logic of the market of images that both the art market and Hollywood ostensibly share, while it offers a new critical standpoint on the history and context of these images.
Arguing a similar point, Kenneth Goldsmith, the force behind UbuWeb, a free (and illegal) online archive of artworks, avant-garde films, sound work, and music, wrote in 2011 that although he faces a full mailbox of cease-and-desist letters, the web provides the perfect place to “restage” moving-image works. What he doesn’t say, but which he implies, is that by giving these works a digital life—a new stage—their avant-garde, experimental, and DIY origins become the digital bytes of source material for further experimentation and creative work. The site is now close to converting its film archive to HTML 5, which means it will also be viewable on mobile devices.
As the huge and varied UbuWeb archive attests, this isn’t the first great migration of moving images. Perhaps moving images are inherently migratory. Even from its very first, heaviest, most machinic origins, “the original version [in cinema] is a multiple object fragmented into a number of different entities,” writes Paolo Cherchi Usai, an archivist and film historian. These multiple origins were once restricted to the cinema, but in the 1960s, filmmakers escaped to project work in galleries, outside, giving a temporal form spatial and dispersed properties. Neologisms like “intermedia” gave a terminology to what was an exciting if confounding seepage between content and form.
In Expanded Cinema (1970) Gene Youngblood enlarged the term “video” and its capacities: the terrain of the moving image, he wrote, now included computer-aided art, video, holograms, and special effects. Television in the late 1960s and ’70s presented a new screen to be colonized by artists: in 1969, Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman performed TV Bra for Living Sculpture, in which cellist Moorman wore two small cathode ray tubes instead of a bra. In the United Kingdom David Hall’s TV Interruptions (1971) was broadcast during normal scheduling hours on the BBC. Incongruous, unannounced, his films set fire (literally, and metaphorically) to the television set. In the 1980s, Gretchen Bender and her Picture Generation fellows infiltrated TV itself (Bender designed the credits sequence for America’s Most Wanted). The artist’s 1987 film, Total Recall, assembled multiple screens and images of violence and commodities, an attempt, Bender said, to undo the unreality that images of the world themselves construct.
David Hall, TV Interruptions, 1971. Screenshot.
Oliver Laric, Versions, 2009. Screenshot.
Now in byte form, the infinite remediation of the moving image seems to have reached an unprecedented scale. The strategies and aesthetic styles developed by artists, filmmakers, and activists have multiplied, seemingly infinitely, as means of navigating through what is available, what is accessible, and how to make things sensible.
There’s been a shift in work recognizing the infrastructures of circulation as a formal and structural mechanism. In After Art, Joselit points to the “invented analogous strategies of aggregation” employed by internet users, artists, and filmmakers alike, to “demonstrate the behaviors of images in populations.” In this context, the production of something “new” is less about original material, more about original assembly. In a 2014 work, Twin (Robert Ryman) Bastards (2014), Fabienne Hess sequenced a Google-search worth of the same Robert Ryman pale monochrome in quick succession on Vimeo. Bastardized by their presence online, her work shows quite literally what Steyerl calls “copies in motion,” accelerated and, therefore, deteriorated monochromes.
We can only imagine the processes through which this same painting has now passed through: “a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution.” The result is a strange vibrato of pink-hued light as numerous uploads, or reloads, or tweaks of the same painting reveal a multitude in sameness. Her work illuminates—as Laric’s does—not only the act of looking at online material as a discrete “object,” but also the network of its own source material—the infinite listing and relisting of a Google image search—visible too.
Joselit called this “network aesthetics”—“premised on the emergence of form from populations of images.” Although I hesitate to agree with such a catchphrase, the tools being developed to ease this process of “population navigation” seem to point to this close link between digital infrastructure and form. Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker, for example; UC Berkeley’s Rashomon Project (still being prototyped), a tool to assemble multiauthored, nonlinear, moving-image material across visual channels; and Pad.ma (and the Pandora software), initiated by CAMP, in Bangalore, an archiving platform that allows viewers to freely edit, comment, and search material via formal properties, like cuts-per-minute or image saturation. These are tools to encourage and open up the critical assembly of material by “engaged spectators,” not viewers.
James Bridle, writing more generally about digital platforms, has called this critical mass “The New Aesthetic.” Many of his comments about this shift—and the ethical and political consequences of, say, Britain’s mass export of its next-generation video surveillance technology—has been written in the vernacular of the networks themselves: in blog posts, on Twitter, or in recorded lectures circulated online, and subjected to the very forms of surveillance Bridle writes about. It’s this, he argues, that allows us to look beyond just what things “look” like. That our critical reception, not only of images, but of other internet entities too, is able to look through to forms “of storage, and distribution; the action of filters, codecs, algorithms, processes, databases, and transfer protocols; the weight of data centres, servers, satellites, cables, routers, switches, modems, infrastructures physical and virtual; and the biases and articulations of disposition and intent encoded in all of these things, and our comprehension of them.” To take this logic further is to recognize that contemporary moving-image assemblies bear the trace of their passage, construction, and “exhibition”—a different kind of provenance.
In Vienna an exhibition titled “For Machine Use Only” has brought together artists, curators, and researchers to experiment in making art “for” and “in collaboration with” machines. Curated by Mohammad Salemy, the exhibition takes as its prompt Google’s reverse image search function, or query by image content. Instead of submitting a word or phrase to Google, we can submit an image, and the engine will scan its properties to return other, similar pictures, of Kim Kardashian’s ass, for example. In the press release, Salemy writes: “As the unstoppable proliferation of images pushes us closer to the outsourcing of the interpretation of images to intelligent machines, audience considerations will sooner or later have to move beyond humans and must include nonhuman cognitive demands. Much like scripts, emoticons and hashtags, images are in the process of becoming a common language for machine-human and machine-machine communication.”
Salemy’s exhibition extends the logic of the query, bringing it into a critical cultural context. It recognizes the infrastructure that enables the action, rather than the things returned. We’re all searching for things, constantly: we send words or hashtags into the ether with the hope that they’ll return to us something we’re looking for. Years are measured in search terms: in 2014 the most popular global searches were “Robin Williams,” “World Cup,” and “Ebola.”
It’s clear that the practice of search and return, which has been streamlined into almost every act of research and work, shapes moving image works, and in its incongruity—returning a panorama of both relevance and oddity—has perhaps also inured us to the strangeness of, for example, the image of a dead protestors directly beneath an advert for shoes. We’re used to crude approximations, a jumble returned via strange metadata, euphemistic images, or occasionally plain wrong returns of the search—but we pick out what we were looking for and move on.
Just a glance at recent works by artists and filmmakers shows how this logic of the search has come to structure not only sequences of images, pieced together by editing, but also how we treat the film object itself, as a query-able terrain.
Take, for example, the pioneering works of Thomson and Craighead, two artists who since the beginnings of dial-up have been assembling digital works that compress the temporal elements of moving image into information, flattening the source links and URLs of the material they use into the same field of vision as the “work” itself. The “back-end” that Bridle alludes to in the text quoted above is made visible, and the processes of “capture”—this search-enabled practice—is clearly legible in and on the image itself. The artists call A Short Film About War (2009) “a narrative documentary artwork made entirely from information found on the worldwide web.” Images taken from Flickr show contemporary conflict through the eyes of “existing military and civilian bloggers,” while the right side of the screen is a column of coursing HTML. This search aesthetic, Bridle points out, is based on partialities: “snapshots, stills, in many forms, not fully formed objects.” Each discrete fragment, assigned in a new sequence or succession, “is a link, hardcoded or imaginative, to other aspects of a far greater system.” Edits are shorter, faster, a mix of still and moving material, as text and source-code and citations merge onto the surface of the thing itself.
Could it be said then that we—as spectators, assemblers, “prosumers,” participants, and sharing-machines—just send queries out into the vast domain of the digital archive, creating things that are made up of what is sent back?
Because isn’t that what Marclay did, along with his six researchers, when he assembled The Clock? Perhaps it wasn’t a digital query, passed through the servers of YouTube or Vimeo, or returned via ever more intelligent algorithms, but his work treated the history of film as a searchable terrain of raw material. In this way The Clock demonstrates a shift toward the valorizing of retrieval, assembly, and editing to be central, celebrated qualities to a (post) digital “film” practice, and, by extension, engaged spectatorship. The ability to work by “reframing, capturing, reiterating, documenting,” Joselit writes, has fast become the main processes through which moving image work is produced and shared online. And perhaps in this way, an openness is also necessarily written into the work.
The Clock is a bad example of this, however, because it’s copyrighted, and it entered the art market system as a unique, singular work to be screened in galleries. Assuming that a separate clip of film exists for each minute of the 24-hour stretch, then I’m speculating, but it’s unlikely that Marclay received the rights to use each of the 1,440 snippets he used. Marclay turns the logic of his own film upside down by enclosing it in a gallery, erasing the structures that allowed him to assemble the work in the first place and also contradicting the visibility of the anonymous collective implicitly present in the work. Marclay aside, many other filmmakers—including the ones mentioned above: Thomson and Craighead, Laric, Hess, Steyerl—treat this form of assembly as a public process, where staying online and in circulation is both vital and in many senses, ethical.
Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, declared that the “best way to preserve film is to project it.” With a minor update, replacing “project” with something like “share,” his sentiment seems representative of the auto-circulationism we’ve entered. In recognizing these trends, and edging toward an understanding of how searches, online archives of inane visual tat, and avant-garde gems live side-by-side, is a step to better understanding the flows of images we see, and making sense of their occasionally overwhelming breadth, their absurdity, strangeness, and power.
Basia Lewandowska Cummings is a writer and editor based in London. She is assistant editor at art-agenda, and works on the Guardian’s world networks, focusing on Africa. She has contributed to frieze, The Wire, the Guardian, Africa Is A Country, and The White Review, amongst others.
The Red Hook Journal has received generous support from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA).
. “Facebook acquits video platform Quickfire Networks,” January 2015. See
. Interesting; although Paper magazine is, as the name suggests, a print publication, the “Break the Internet” tag line and image were surely conceptualized only for online distribution.
. Hito Steyerl, “Too Much World, Is the Internet Dead?” e-flux journal (no. 46, Nov. 2013). See http://www.e-flux.com/journal/too-much-world-is-the-internet-dead/
. David Joselit, After Art (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2012), 14.
. A good example of mainstream affirmation of online “screening” is the much fanfare-d The Interview (2015), the stoner North Korea comedy which, thanks to a hack by the North Koreans, or by a very clever PR machine, was released almost exclusively online, apparently in exile. It’s an unconvincing exile, given that many, many more viewers saw it this way: Sony Pictures reported that it had been rented and/or downloaded over two million times.
. Katherine Groo, “Cut, Paste, Glitch and Stutter: Remixing Film History,” InTransition (no. 1, July 2012) See http://framescinemajournal.com/article/cut-paste-glitch-and-stutter/
. Kenneth Goldsmith on UbuWeb, 2011. See http://www.ubuweb.com/resources/index.html
. Paolo Cherchi Usai, Silent Cinema: An Introduction (London: BFI, 2010), 160.
.Hito Steyerl, “Too Much World, Is the Internet Dead?” e-flux journal (issue 46, Nov. 2013).
. After Art, 39.
. James Bridle, “How Britain Exported Next-Generation Surveillance,” Matter, December 2013. See https://medium.com/matter/how-britain-exported-next-generation-surveillance-d15b5801b79e
. James Bridle, “The New Aesthetic and its Politics” in Omar Kholeif, ed., You Are Here—Art After the Internet (Manchester: Cornerhouse, 2014), 23.
. James Bridle, “The New Aesthetic and its Politics,” 23.