a knife all blade

 

Author: Gabriel Menotti
Format: Experimental
Duration: 1′ 44″


Research Statement

Questions 
a knife all blade[1] was produced by the means of exploring the digital photographic apparatus, in an attempt to devise its specificities – or, more precisely, to bring the visual characteristics of algorithmic image processing into view.

Context
On 25 November 2008, my work a knife all blade was exhibited for the first time at the 15th Vitória Cine Vídeofestival in Brazil. Or, more accurately, it was to be exhibited. Within a few seconds of the screening, the movie was interrupted, and nobody in the audience realized what had happened. It was as if the movie had not existed, even after being present before the audience’s eyes.

How did it happen? It is hard to tell, looking at the work alone. a knife all blade is a very simple video piece, made using a mobile phone camera[2] with the lens covered, so that no light could reach the device’s CMOS sensor. In spite of this, the apparatus did produce some images, thanks to the digital compression that took place at the very moment of video capture. Nokia’s low quality algorithm interpreted the complete darkness as an image to be processed and stored, generating loads of pixel artefacts. The visual result of this “blind” recording was a-few-frames-long composition of small grey squares that succeed each other recklessly, in a kind of abstract animation – according to the synopsis of the work, “a feeble attempt of the algorithm to make images out of nothing.”

Without a subject in front of its lens to inform it – a world of light to hold to – the camera worked just like the knife of Rabindranath Tagore’s dictum, which says: “a mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes the hand bleed that uses it.” The pure logic of video processing went wild, producing a movie that was an index of nothing but the machine itself. It could be said that the production of a knife all blade avoided the use of the optical mechanisms of representation in which audiovisual technologies are traditionally based, foregrounding suppressed aesthetic qualities of their structural underpinnings.

Methods
This kind of anti-figurative strategy is not original at all; it is not very different from what Peter Kubelka achieved with his stroboscopic Arnulf Rainer (1960), or from Steina and Woody Valsuka’s video synthesizing techniques (from the 1980s). These works ignore the camera, not allowing any pro-filmic event to enter the optical system. What they do is to put the apparatus in a closed short-circuit, renouncing any kind of external input and resorting to a minimum of “creative” intervention (respectively, the sequencing of clear and black frames in the filmstrip and the modulation of the electronic signal). Hence, they produce visual patterns in a most self-contained (and straightforward) way. And yet they produce nothing but difference, revealing what is already in the system to be put out. Essentially immanent, they show the machine looking at itself through its own mind’s eye.

Certainly, the different technologies employed by each work stipulate different levels of closure and intervention. Kubelka’s film was prepared at a time and place completely separated from the projection space in which it was finally loaded and manifested. Valsuka’s video synthesis, on the other hand, happened in the short interval it takes for the signal to get through its generator and reach the screen. a knife all blade apparently compresses the short-circuiting of the optic apparatus to the pure present: it results from the briefest moment in which the camera’s blind sensor processes the not-received stimuli, generating artefacts. Likewise, it required the least possible amount of authorial activity: only the ready-made procedures of covering the lens and selecting when to cut the resulting image sequence.

Drawing from methods similar to those of structural cinema and early video art, a knife all blade brings to light the procedural substance of images based on computation. In that sense, it goes against digital cinema’s pretences to immateriality, as well as the claims that a camera is a transparent window over the world. This kind of work demonstrates that the pure apparatus, without any sort of optical input, already provokes a visual result. From the standpoint of the running mechanism, such visuals would be a mere collateral effect of internal functions – of automatic processes of information, such as the projection of light; the flow of electricity; the computation of data. How should one classify this visual degree zero, in which technology itself is made evident?

Outcomes
French philosopher Paul Virilio once proposed the concepts of small optics and big optics to distinguish between the way analogue and electronic media deal with space and produce presence (1992). Small optics, like photography and film, do so based on the linear geometry of light rays; big optics, such as television broadcasts, resort to the undulatory particles of signal transmission. Between the two, there is a fundamental difference in the reach and speed of operation that determines their regimes of representation. While isomorphic small optics “account for man’s immediate environs” (ibid: 82) and favour the measurement of real space, light-speed big optics can handle even cosmic scales (ibid: 89) and thus allow for what Virilio called the perspective of real-time – a situation in which horizons cease to exist because we are able to grasp the whole visual field instantaneously, without being restricted by distances, resulting in an illusion of absolute presentness. In addition to these two concepts, both anchored in the representation of an external referent, a knife all blade gestures towards a third one: that of blind optics.

Blind optics may help us to think about the latest developments in image technology – either digital synthesis (the production of totally artificial images) or what Peter Weibel has called neurocinema (a complete virtualization of perception) (2003). However, this term does not necessarily characterize a third stage of visual media, one based on computation. It can actually be a critical perspective over all three historical paradigms of technical images, whether filmic, electronic or digital. Blind optics is what you get when you cover the lenses: the complete denial of worldviews, favouring the appearance of the apparatus itself – the actual presence of technique. From this angle, both space and time are inevitably “real,” because they are not represented: they are the specific place and duration of the apparatus. What is shown (on a screen) should never be analysed without taking into account these immanent characteristics of media technology. The image is always conditioned by its technical underpinnings, which is made evident by the perspective of blind optics.

Does this mean that the physical conditions of media are its fundamental parameters of existence? Is the movie secondary to the realities of the film support; of the photographic apparatus; of the theatre architecture? No, not entirely. Of course, one should pay attention to Friedrich Kittler’s warning against oversimplifying general media technology by reducing it to its effects and applications (2010: 25). However, this does not necessarily lead to the adoption of the physical parameters of optics over the socio-cultural parameters of visuality as a means of characterizing media (ibid: 3). Even blinded, media technology can still be visual. Provided there are means for output, storage or transmission, there seems to be an emergence of visual patterns such as a knife all blade.

However, the existence of an image does not necessarily imply that it can be seen, as the incident told in the beginning of this text demonstrates. As significant as the actual presence of technology is our way of engaging and making sense of it. In the premiere of a knife all blade, the projectionist had probably mistaken the movie for noise in a bad tape copy and turned the projector off. The audience, thinking that this functionary would know better how to engage with the apparatus, did not even consider the images it had just seen as part of an artwork. In that sense, a knife all blade can push the investigation of cinema as visual media further, leading us to ask: if it is invisible, if it cannot be seen, if it is overlooked, is it still a movie?

Impact
The work was made without funds. It has been screened in the festivals Vitória Cine Vídeo (Brazil), Artemov (Brazil) and Rencontres Internationales Paris/Berlin/Madrid and GLI.TC/H (USA), among others, as well as presented in academic conferences.

References

Kittler, Friedrich (2010) Optical Media, UK: Polity.

Virilio, Paul (1992) ‘Big Optics,’ pp. 82-93 in R. Fleck (ed.) On Justifying The Hypothetical Nature Of Art And The Non-Identicality Within The Object World, Koln, Walther Koenig bookshop.

Weibel, Peter (2003) ‘The Intelligent Image: Neurocinema or Quantum Cinema?,’ pp. 594-603 in J. Shaw & P. Weibel (eds.) Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary After the Film, Cambridge: MIT.

[1] The piece’s title is all lowercase intentionally, as befitting a work of such minimalism.

[2] More precisely a Nokia 6275, which produces MPEG-4 video in QCIF resolution (176×144 pixels).


Peer Reviews

All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows

Review 1: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
The artist is right to claim in their research statement that the kind of ‘anti-figurative strategy’ deployed in this film is ‘not original at all’. This is, however, precisely why the work remains strongly original: the questions of structuralist cinema, if they were ever really solved, must be asked and answered anew in the digital era. The challenging simplicity of a knife all blade articulates these enquiries magnificently.

The first quality that strikes the viewer of a knife all blade is the seemingly paradoxical liveliness of a film made with the lens cap on. Indeed, this goes to the heart of the issues raised by this work, immediately questioning the relationship between audio-visual technology and authorial intentionality in the face of an explicit denial (though not an absence) of the pro-filmic event. What is the source of these images, and how can meaning be made from such a refutation of artist intervention? Placing one in mind of Roland Barthes’ ‘writerly text’ (S/Z, 1970) – that which invites the active participation of the reader in meaning production – watching a knife all blade one cannot help but see qualities and characteristics in the images. Whether this be the ‘feeble attempt’ of algorithms to ‘make images out of nothing’ (as the Vimeo tagline has it) or my impression of a playful, chaotic record of inputs, the viewer is keenly aware of their role here. The pulsing, rhythmical patterns in such a silent text also suggest a synaesthetic experience, as if the movements on screen constitute a visual record of sound. This compulsion to read meaning into a text which seems to deny it simultaneously and necessarily foregrounds the structural components of that text. Such palpably digital images bringing into focus their own digitality: that which is usually effaced in more iconic modes of representation. This tension between imbuing with meaning images which also seem to speak only of their own essence is perfectly captured in the film’s title. If the blade of a knife is also its vanishing point, a knife all blade is both the essence of itself and the moment of its disappearance. At once both revelation and denial.

The accompanying statement to this work statement does well to situate the text in the context of structural-materialist filmmaking and to develop this mode in relation to digital imagery (regarding the incident of the film’s premiere, see in Margaret Dickinson’s Rogue Reels for another account of materialist cinema exhibition going awry! (1999, 296-7)). I would have liked more acknowledgement of the emphasis on US traditions of avant-garde cinema over those of the UK (given that both Valsuka and Kubelka worked in New York), but accept the restrictions of the word count. Drawing on Virilio and Weibel to develop the notion of blind optics is a fascinating move, and makes for an interesting reflection on the visibility of media in the digital era. Although I’m not sure I agree that covering the lenses is a complete denial of worldview (an act which constitutes an ideological perspective on worldviews in the first place), or that one can separate out technique from technology in the way you suggest, these are important conversations to be having.

There are some very complex ideas in the statement, some of which could do with clarification. I’m not sure, for instance, how ‘the perspective of real time’ equates to ‘the dissolution of horizons’, nor what is meant by ‘absolute presentness’ (or its dissolution). I accept the limited word count makes this difficult, but had the impression that more effort could be made here. There are also many unnecessary italicisations (‘visual result’; ‘small’, ‘big’ and ‘blind optics’; ‘shown’; ‘can be seen’ etc) which diminish the effect of the emphasis when necessary. Finally, in the penultimate sentence ‘considered’ should be ‘consider’, and if the uncapitalised title is intentional it should be explained.

Overall though, this is thought-provoking and theoretically grounded research.

Review 2: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement 
This is a stimulating film and statement very much in the tradition of reflexive film.  It puts me in mind of Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera or Len Lye scratching celluloid in the 1930s.  But for this reader it also has resonances with the surveillance cameras and recording devices that monitor the city without human input or any clear sense of purpose.  This may be tangential and too personal but I wonder whether the author might at least make more of the historical antecedents in his completed statement.

He writes about ‘zero’ and in this respect it reminded me of Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her in which the director muses in a whisper being ‘back at zero and having to start from there’.  Godard was reflecting on how language had been corrupted by capitalism and his film is an attempt to rethink what cinema can do in such conditions.  This is a political motivation and quite different from Menotti but we could do with hearing a little more in terms of his motivation.  Quite simple – why do we need work of this kind?

It’s interesting to hear of the audience reaction but I wonder what difference it would have made if he had called his film something like ‘A machine struggles for breath and then dies.’  Instead of being baffled and then dismissive as the writer suggests they would then have had to engage with it and this might have complicated his reading.

There are phrases that might bear looking at.  For example ‘foregrounded the suppressed aesthetic of their structural underpinning.’  Can we really be sure than an aesthetic can emerge from these processes? Are we not imputing an aesthetic?  Secondly for ‘structural underpinning’ does he not mean ‘processes’?  Perhaps I misread it.

The statement that accompanies the film on Vimeo might be used elsewhere on the site to advertise it – it’s much more engaging than the cold description.

I watched the film a few times very early in the morning against a background of lights in the city.  Its soundlessness gives it a strange and compelling quality that bear further viewings.  I would be happy to engage with such work again.

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