Academic journal article Visible Language

After the Death of Film: Writing the Natural World in the Digital Age

Academic journal article Visible Language

After the Death of Film: Writing the Natural World in the Digital Age

Article excerpt

Abstract

This essay argues that the North American cinematic avant-garde's interest in celluloid film's materiality goes to the heart of our culture's current anxiety about the digital ability to seamlessly transcode, endlessly reproduce and recklessly disseminate images of all stripes. It traces the ways in which celluloid film's capacity for registering the marks made by the artist's hand, natural elements and accidents function as writing in the work of filmmakers Greta Snider, David Gatten, Lynn Kirby among others.

At first glance, the current cinematic avant-garde's interest in film's specificity might appear to be no more than a last reach for artistic legitimacy in the postmodern digital age. Perhaps nostalgia for a simplistic modernism is to be expected. However, we might be surprised by the cinematic avant-garde's present investment in celluloid film: its indexical, documentary guarantee. This means that what often looks like a return to formalist abstraction actually co-exists with questions about what those light flecks and scratches reveal: the filmstrip's origin, the conditions of its exposure and its travels through the world. Such material mark-making functions as a kind of writing, in which abstract images come to stand for the hands, sun, rivers, ground and weather that made those marks.The current cinematic avant-garde's interest in celluloid's materiality goes to the heart of our culture's current anxiety about the digital ability to seamlessly transcode, endlessly reproduce and recklessly disseminate images of all stripes. Under present conditions, celluloid film's indexical image, unlike digital information, can be touched, cut, held up to the light and observed by the naked eye. Film's comparatively material status also harkens back to earlier assurances, in which a painter's touch produces an impression of artistic presence or a photographer gives witness to an image's capture.

In today's digital world, indexical celluloid film speaks differently from the address offered by paper, video, television and digital documents. The term 'medium' now gestures toward the expanded discursive and political field in which any material document appears. This means that however initially abstract and illegible the image we see may appear, celluloid film's flecks, blurs and scratches can be made to invoke, not only a general sense of how time and history wear upon the image, but the specific material conditions and emotions evoked by the particular context of its prod uction, travels through the world and association with the artist. These larger meanings of the abstract image emerge through extra-textual information, which is offered in the form of program notes, artist's statements, curatorial choices, historical notes, interviews, anecdotes and gossip. Perhaps, such notes often suggest, the shapeless colors and signs of wear we see can tell stories and call up histories. Such information makes otherwise illegible marks function as a form of evidence. At the turn of the 21st century, avant-garde cinema's turn to the expanded discursive field that film inhabits points to the impossibility of representing critical historical, political and cultural events through the iconic image alone.

This essay brings together two contemporary discussions about the status of celluloid in the digital age, which in recent years have increasingly overlapped. In the first, filmmakers, critics and curators wondered if the digital threatened film with obsolescence, even 'death.' These concerns are encapsulated most clearly in a 2001 October roundtable, in which participants worried about the digital's effect on the future of celluloid film in an already shaky postmodern avant-garde. In the same breath, however, they noted the resurgence of avant-garde films tackling the question of film's medium specificity. They also noted the proliferation of avant-garde film festivals in cities like New York, Toronto, Berlin, London, San Francisco, Chicago, Austin and elsewhere. …

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