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Materiality in the digital

Mario Al just sent me this:

Chrissie Iles, who is the film curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, spoke to our class a few days ago.

    Her curatorial practice, as she described it that evening, is all about work that explores the formal properties of a medium.  She may have used the phrase „engages the materiality of the medium.‰  I was given to understand that she was using medium in two ways - as a material such as sprocketed film and also as a set of conventions such as Hollywood cinema. She seemed to have little or no interest in organizing shows along what I would call themes (ie society and nature, surveillance, global warming), but rather as collections of explorations of form.

     In one video or film installation piece she described, footage of a woman showering is projected into a shower stall, at some point the water turns to paint. The piece deals with the nature of film (I suppose this would be in a foregrounding of the formal property of film in that it is projected - we are used to seeing it projected on a neutral/invisible surface, the reflective white screen but here it is projected on a surface that relates to and completes the image), she also said it brought up references to Hitchcock‚s Psycho and something about painting. Another installation she talked about is the 24 Hour Psycho, which is Hitchcock‚s Psycho slowed down so that the movie runs for 24 hours rather than 90 minutes or whatever. The piece deals with a formal property of film - that film is composed of individual photographs that are typically manipulated and crafted by being chopped up and reorganized but are almost always played back at the rate they were filmed... so that although there may be many ellipses within the film (that is, parts where the editor has suggested  rather than showing passage of time) the movement we do see on screen  is neither sped up nor slowed down. But since a film is just essentially a huge pile of photographs ˆ why not?

    The thing about this sort of approach or focus is that each cultural form is governed by the properties of its medium, and each cultural form is a way of knowing the world. Classic Hollywood filmmaking is a way (well, many ways...) of knowing the world, and also the flashing of individual photographs at 24 frames a second is a way of knowing the world. Work which engages, questions, foregrounds the assumptions of a form or the base materialities of a medium can makes us see the limits of knowing the world through that particular medium and its associated cultural forms. (1)

    During her presentation, Nick Stedman, who is a student here working with robotics as sculpture, asked Chrisssie Iles about technology-based art. She said, „I hate gigabyte art.‰

    Is there something about the immaterilaity or the impermanence of digital technology that would logically make her dismissive of the field? Is there some way that engaging the materiality of digital technology is a dead end?

    We can look at digital media as having two layers - a „cultural layer‰ (which will be familiar to us from older cultural practices: narrative, metaphor, exposition, comedy, tragedy, etc.) and a „computer layer‰ (data storage matrices, communication protocols) [Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, pg 46].

    Manovich says that the computer layer comprises the hardware and the software. I am interested in taking a more detailed look at the computer layer and looking at this layer as comprised of hardware, software and data abstraction sub-layers.

    By hardware I mean the objects that allow us to sense the data - for instance the screen that emits a grid of colored light waves.

    By software I mean the programming that manipulates data and communicates back to the hardware layer.

    By data abstraction I mean the organizational method by which digital media is stored as a string of data. 

    I am thinking that the data-abstraction sub-layer might comprise the most base element of „materiality‰ that we can find in the digital media.

    In some cases, the particularities of the data abstraction sub-layer will be invisible to the user and completely extrinsic to the experience of the cultural artifact. For instance if you create a digital image you might save it in any number of formats. You may save it in more than one data format. As strings of digital information the two versions will be different. On the cultural level - that is, as a grid of pixels of particular colors, in a particular order, that may or not refer to some particular visual phenomena or symbol, they remain identical.

    Staying with the example of data structures for a digital image, there are several common standards for representing data, such as gif, jpeg, tiff etc. However the field is extremely fluid. One can writing an encoding algorithm and a corresponding decoding algorithm and have created a new method for storing a digital image.

    So to make some examples... we could say that we are going to represent images in sixteen possible colors. We could say that we are going to represent images up to 16 pixels x 16 pixels in dimension. We could create a data abstraction model that writes each pixel in sequence. Maybe the first thing would be two numbers that capture the width and height of the image in pixels, and following that, the color value for each pixel. So something like...


But if, say 01101 is red and 00000 is white then it would actually look something like....

01101 01101 01101 01101
01101 00000 00000 00000
01101 01101 01101 00000
01101 00000 00000 00000
01101 01101 01101 01101

I mean....

(It doesn‚t look much like the letter E anymore.)

    But maybe I have a better, or just a different, thought about how the data could be stored... maybe I think that you would record the width and height and then the number of colors in the image, and then the code for each color, and from then on the colors are represented in the same order as in the previous example but using the smallest length number necessary (if there are two colors in the image the colors can be represented by a 1 bit number).



00010 01101 00000
1 1 1 1
1 0 0 0
1 1 1 0
1 0 0 0
1 1 1 1

or actually...


    In this case, the new system yields a much smaller file size. But this wouldn‚t have to be the case - and would not have been if the image would have had many colors. Anyway we can create our system to be inefficient in terms of storage if we want.

    One can create software so that an image stored in one method can be converted to this new method. The software can be distributed and used by a few people or perhaps by many.

    So, as you regard a digital image with your senses, it is the product of a data abstraction layer which is completely arbitrary. (The data is organized according to strict rules which allow it to be retrieved to the hardware by a corresponding software, but an array of colored pixels can be stored in an infinite number of methods.)

    We know what a projector is, we know what film looks like, what a camera is, what paint is (even if just because it these are the metaphors for the icons in our consumer software). So the installation in the shower might make the invisible theater screen become visible to us. Or when a painter mixes some bodily fluid to his paints, we may not notice a difference in the quality of color on the canvas, but when he tells us all about what he did, we might be shocked or bored or annoyed but at least we‚ll at least know what he‚s talking about - we know what paint is and what piss is and we can stand in front of the work and be in the presence of his intervention with the tradition of painting.
But if we are seeking to deal with a digital image at its most base level but find that we trace it back to a string of data the organizational principles of which may have no unique cultural history (you may have written it this morning), is completely arbitrary (the same arrangement of pixels can be represented by any number of data structures) and is never part of our sensory experience of the image (and if we attempt to make it such we have no way of reading it) is there any fruitful way of engaging it?

Well now that I‚ve gotten this far its apparent that all of these problems are actually opportunities.

Here is meta code for approaches to these opportunities:
#Problem 1) the data abstraction layer may have no unique cultural
#(you may have written it this morning)

conceptualize an image as an array of colored pixels
create unique data abstraction layer
write software to save image in unique abstraction layer,
save image in unique abstraction layer
destroy all of your notes, work files for creating the image and on
how the abstraction layer was organized

now you have an image trapped in data with no key to unlock it

#Problem 2) is completely arbitrary (the same arrangement of pixels
#be represented by any number of data structures)
#a copyright thing
#because of mickey mouse and the history of disney

image of mickey from disney website string of data that represents mickey encode image using your personal proprietary format

disney asserts ownership and control of the string of data you found on their website but you assert ownership and control of the string of data you encoded

#Problem 3) never part of our sensory experience of the image (and if

#attempt to make it such we have no way of reading it) string of binary data that you claim has very special contents - scans of missing pages of the Warren Report, whatever

    So, I‚m still not sure why Chrissie Iles is uninterested in technological approaches to art. But I don‚t think you can make a special case that digital media are resistant to exploration on a basic formal level. Even at the level of data structure there is much room for looking around.

    On the other hand while we are appreciating these conceptual realizations about the nature of the form we are doing so as part of a real world with a real ongoing history, a world in which one man is honored for creating „the shower scene‰ and more men are honored and celebrated for exploring the formal properties of film while referencing that same scene.  Where‚s the actual criticism - does the work attempt to detourne or otherwise take a critical view -not just of the original scene but of the history and ongoing reality it represents? There may be more to both of these works of course but her presentation led me to believe that the important thing is how the work deals with film radically, not anything about how the work deals with the future of the world radically.

References/ Recommended Reading

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