Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal

Connect and Rupture

Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal

Connect and Rupture

Article excerpt

Jesse McLean's videos are an anthropological vantage on modern media-weaving together original footage with material culled from the web, reality television, Hollywood cinema, home movies, and texts appropriated from sources as banal as Us Weekly and as erudite as Alan Turing. As a collagist of remarkably heterogeneous material, she is at once idiosyncratic and egalitarian. Investigating the affective qualities of media with the acuity of a detective, her perspicaciously constructed works produce startling effects, magnifying the manipulative emotional responses we have to a song or piece of footage, while simultaneously pulling back to reveal an apparatus we are powerless to resist. She has carved out a truly singular practice amidst an increasingly procrustean landscape of experimental cinema.

McLean's latest work, See a Dog, Hear a Dog (2016), premiered at the 2016 New York Film Festival, where it screened on the first program of the Projections sidebar, "The Spaces Between the Words." A thematic and stylistic pivot from her investigations of media and affect in such works as I'm in Pittsburgh and It's Raining (2015), Just Like Us (2014), and The Invisible World (2012), McLean's latest piece interrogates a more fundamental aspect of human communication.1 Through a series of sequences depicting interactions between human and non-human interlocutors, See a Dog, Hear a Dog unravels a spate of failures and uncanny successes at connection. Like McLean's other videos, the variety of subjects and materials included are wide-ranging: dogs, early computers, robots of assorted variety, text to speech programs, iTunes music visualizations, and A.I. programs. In a manner that differs from some of McLean's earlier work, however, the legibility and linearity of See a Dog, Hear a Dog is punctuated with explosions of densely-layered associative montages that McLean employs in conscious "rupture strategies." An undeniable observation emerges from these collaged scenes: human beings have a powerful need to communicate with nonhumans, despite the inevitable failures entailed by such efforts.

This insight comes through in several segments depicting McLean's typed exchange with ELIZA: a language processing computer program developed by Joseph Weizenbaum in MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in 1964. Effectively the first chatbot, ELIZA can perform several programmed scripts, the most famous of which, "DOCTOR," simulates a Rogerian psychotherapist by asking simple questions and rephraseing certain responses. When Weizenbaum introduced ELIZA to his secretary, she famously asked him to leave the room for privacy. But McLean's attempts at genuine communication with ELIZA are thwarted, as simple questions ("Are you a dog or a cat person?") reveal the program's restructuring of words. Never mind when McLean explains the Apollonian and Dionysian understanding of the origins of music-ELIZA is helpless to understand.

Conversely, the dog, a nonhuman entity with which we enjoy a certain superficial level of communication, is scrutinized by McLean's video on its most anthropomorphized terms. The video prominently features a Basenji (a svelte, compact dog) that is able to paw atop a piano and howl to the discordant tones, or to appear genuinely moved as it sings along to the theme of Braveheart (1995). In these moments, an uncanny sense of the animal's sentience is on full display-a feeling that prompted an audible response from the audience at Projections, which elicited what the filmmaker Roger Beebe characterized ironically as a Pavlovian response. This audible reflex ("awww!") itself portends the thirst to be connected to the nonhuman.

This interview was conducted via email over the course of several weeks in November and December 2016.

ELI HORWATT: Your latest video makes very productive use of juxtaposing how human beings anthropomorphize computers and animals. Could you talk about how these two concepts became linked for you, and how you amassed the material you use? …

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