Absolute Originality

by Aaron Ross

Structuring Strategies
Instructor: Nancy Buchanan  

While the merit of a given work of art does not rest solely on its level of innovation, a certain degree of novelty must be present if the work is to hold the interest of a critical audience. At the same time, however, art must in a sense stand outside of time if it is to address universal human qualities. It is when this paradox is gracefully resolved that we say a piece stands the test of time; its voice may come from a distant time or place, but the language it speaks is common to all.

Unfortunately, the media of film and video have only rarely been utilized to their full extent in this respect, so there are relatively few examples of truly original and universal artworks on film or tape. This is, of course, due to the control of these media by industry. Artistic innovation lies on the opposite end of the continuum from commercial production, which concerns itself only with the gratification of the consumer.

The key to true communication is honesty. That's why it is important that a film or video artist is true to his or her medium, and does not imitate other forms of expression. Traditionally, commercial cinema and television have done nothing but that, in order to insure that the public is not alienated. This is why TV imitates the cinema, which in turn imitates theater, which ultimately imitates literature. A true artist can break this chain, and strike out in a new direction more appropriate to the media at hand.

One possible vector the media artist may follow is absolute formalism. By focusing on the specific physical characteristics of a particular medium, the artist concentrates his or her aesthetic sensibilities on a narrower spectrum. Honesty regarding materials is a prerequisite of this approach. Even in the highly illusionistic media of film and video, absolutism leaves no room for deception. The suspension of disbelief is an irrelevant issue, because the work is not trying to represent anything; it simply is what it is.

Perhaps the ultimate example of this is the technique of video feedback. In its purest form, feedback represents nothing but itself, in an endless series of framings. It is art and technology focused on an internal infinity. Thus it becomes a metaphor for self-awareness — the ceaseless interaction of the self with itself in a finite space.

Curiously, the imagery produced by interactive video feedback systems often parallels that found in religious iconography — the archetypal symbol of the mandala is a regular fixture of the genre. Consciously or not, the artist manipulates the technological tools at his or her disposal to produce symbols of an authentically ancient, ubiquitous nature. The work is at once innovative and universal.

Padma, by Michael Scroggins, is one such work. It is an unedited 20-minute piece, comprised solely of black-and-white video feedback. The title refers to the Sanskrit word for lotus flower — a familiar mandala image in Eastern religions. Appropriately, Scroggins' piece is slow and meditative, with subtle transitions among various radially symmetrical images of fascinating complexity.

It is a work which cannot be adequately described, and must be experienced to be comprehended. That is the essence of this type of perceptually-based art. If it were possible to make the same aesthetic statement in print or other media, the work would have failed in its mission to create a unique sensory experience. With this in mind, the artist strives to express those aspects of the "human condition" which cannot be verbalized.

Art such as this operates simultaneously on a number of different levels. The most basic aspect of the work is its formal, perceptual impact, which is necessarily preverbal and free of interpretations. One might describe this as a physiological process determined by the effect of light and sound on the perceptual apparatus of the viewer. It is fundamentally neurological and unconscious.

When the cognitive processes within the viewer are engaged, a chain of associations is enacted. This is, of course, due to the memory of prior experiences. With a piece such as Padma, individual audience reactions are highly varible, due to the wide range of associations made possible by the subject-matter. In fact, the piece becomes in a sense a screen for the audience to project their personal associations onto. There is no guarantee that the viewer will see anything like what the artist intended. That is the danger of this type of art — it is often wildly misinterpreted due to prejudice, misconception, or ignorance.

The most important aspect of art is how well it communicates with the collective unconscious, that part of the mind which is common to all human beings. By utilizing specific archetypal images, the artist activates pre-existing feeling-complexes within the viewer. The archetypes themselves actually perform the function of consciousness alteration; the artwork is simply a vessel for projection. The goal of the artist is to bring forth these images from his or her own unconscious so that they may be communicated both to him/herself and the audience at large. Ideally, the artist should be entirely aware of the process, at least after the fact....

As with the ancient art of alchemy, the theme of absolutist film and video is transformation — endless flux. It is appropriate that video feedback is a self-regulating chaotic system with sensitive dependence on initial conditions, because that's what being human is all about! So the metaphor is a valid one on any number of levels.

Another work which might be read in these terms is Rumble by Jules Engel. Although the technique of single-frame animation shares nothing in common with video feedback, there are several points of congruence between the two pieces. Obviously, they both reject any form of narrative in favor of pure formalism. In addition, transformative processes are at the core of the works. While this is overtly expressed in psychological and cosmological terms in Scroggins's piece, Engels' Rumble is more difficult to interpret.

Rumble is about as absolutist as film can get. Its primary impact is on the senses. While one is of course free to project anything one wishes into the work, this becomes problematic since the film does not concern itself with intellect. It is much more fundamental and intuitive in its net effect.

This is, of course, entirely valid. However, it is impossible to dissociate perception from cognition, even in the case of flicker-films such as Rumble, which deliberately seek to induce states of trance. In fact, the simple usage of flicker techniques indicates a certain intent on the part of the artist, which is of course open to interpretation.

While the processes of production, the stated intentions of the artists, and the audience's experiences of these two works are very dissimilar, there can be no doubt that they serve a similar function: the alteration of consciousness through transformative processes. Both pieces are innovative and universal; they are "original" in both senses of the word.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel.


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