Machine Images

by Eugen Blume

 

What would the great portrait painters of the 17th, 18th or early 19th centruy have thought if someone had assured them that just a short time later it would be technically possible to create pictures which not only closely resembled the real image, but could speak as well - and speaking means that the pictures could move? We know that Vermeer made use of the camera obscura to paint his sumptuous interiors. An image was projected onto a screen in front of him, and this projection could itself move, but he would have found the idea that he could capture the movement, and make it repeat the motion at will, absurd. To solve the riddle, he probably would have imagined the contraptions being produced at the time by ingenious mechanics in Nuremberg and elsewhere, which proved popular as presents to royalty. These inventors dreamed of a machine, an articulated human doll, which could speak and move so naturally that it would be considered a real person. As Gilles Deleuze convincingly argues in his lengthy essay about film, it was the cinema that first managed to construct such a machine. Projection was able to fulfil all dreams, and even the least likely of events could be made to appear as a flickering image on the screen, endowed with sound and motion. Yet everything that we take to be real, and to move of its own accord, is in fact produced by a machine that can be switched on and off, is prone to mechanical failure, whose film can tear, and which can be made to repeat its trick again and again if we press the appropriate buttons. When we are sitting in a cinema, in front of a flickering screen in a darkened room, this principle of automation is hidden. We are not aware of it unless the film itself thematises the fact, which is increasingly the case. The screen, as a vertical blackboard, a communal experience, demands our full concentration. It is a form of communal worship which, with the advent of television, video technology and personal comuters, has retreated into the private sphere. The television in a corner of the living room is just one machine among others. It provides information in an automatic way, it can be switched on and off, and an infinite number of images can be called up, and saved by means of a video recorder. Although it is a remarkable invention, we are no longer awed by it. Cinema mesmerises the observer still, television less so, and now the Internet seems to be bringing forth a new telematic culture. Thousands of moving, speaking and sound-producing images are now available in our homes 24 hours a day. But to what effect? The sensations already seem to be too weak: we surf through channels in the hope that something will grab our attention. We quickly lose patience because we know that five hundred other television stations worldwide simultaneously have something else on offer. We no longer need to follow a plot; it is easy to switch off a boring conversation. Television, directed solely at the senses of sight and hearing, paradoxically leads to a disruption of our 'traditional' use of these very senses. It combines sight and hearing with speed, and with the ability not to see or hear. It joins up with various effects and replaces nature with information. Despite the endless reservoir of information, it is a poor medium, a structure limited entirely to surfaces. Certain figures in television - newsreaders, talk show hosts, and so on - appear so regularly and over so many years that we feel we know them personally. In reality, we know nothing about them; they are simply machines in the service of other machines, and this is termed professionalism. The invention of the portable video recorder, which nowadays is part of almost every family's standard equipment, makes it possible - as the camera before it - to record important family events. The ubiquitousness of electronic images gives rise to doubts about whether they can achieve the same depth as the portrait artists had done in their 'primitive', static pictures. Such artists as Bruce Nauman, Bill Viola or Gary Hill convincingly refute these doubts. Every invention involving the production of images has, after all, found a place in the world of art. It is always a question of what the observer brings to the work of art; even when the artist's concept is sound, nothing will happen if the observer who approaches it is 'empty' at the time. In the 1960's a young filmmaker (with knowledge of Warhol's films) conducted an experiment. He invited friends and acquaintances to his apartment at a particular time. Waiting for them was a running camera. There were no instructions beyond that of sitting in front of the camera and relating to it in some way. The consciousness of the fact that a segment of one's own existence - the time spent in front of this camera - was to be documented, and used later perhaps as a document showing originality or failure, dominated what followed. The self-consciousness caused by entering into a private room, with all the relaxed privacy that normally involves, and then being confronted by something public, came as a shock. What was so shocking was the betrayal of the expectation of familiarity. In our culture, a camera is a significant object, one that instantly changes our behaviour. The equipment being pointed at us is no more than a mechanical machine in which film or tape is pulled through. We have seen ethnologists' recordings that demonstrate the openness of peoples unaware of cameras and their function. To ask someone in a Western metropolis to stop in front of a camera, on the other hand, is to assume some kind of dissembling. To ask this of someone but, as in the experiment mentioned above, to let the person talk freely, alone and without restrictions on time or language, increases the chance that he will reveal more of his true self, and fall back on clich_s and poses less often. What remains is a fragment, a fragmented personality which has to fall into the role of a machine, as it serves a machine. The complexity of its being is only realised in its physical existence and is retained as the experienced secret of self-reflection. The film fragment, the brief presentation of one's feelings in language, the non-verbal language of gestures, etc. are turned by the observer/listener through the filter of his own self into a complex whole which the fragment in some way or other settles into. The people are characterised by an endless chain of determinants, a particularly complex one being socialisation in a big city. If this city is transversed by particular energies, as is New York, then these waves of energy leave traces in a person like layers of sediment in stone. The canyons of Manhattan are like force fields that give the person walking through them an electrical charge, strengthening their upright gait. In other areas of the city, where decay has set in, a different kind of energy operates; often the areas of influence switch suddenly at an important street, which somehow serves as an imaginary border. An incessant confusion of voices pervades everything, and a private destiny is hidden behind each voice. The sum is easy to calculate: by absorbing as much as possible from these voices, I have perhaps transformed the fields of energy into a battery, in memory, in something that goes beyond mere information, that combines to form a residue that cannot in the end be verbalised. It is this essence which raises the work above the level of a mere machine. What is said in front of the camera may not even play a particularly significant role; what is important is the power of the image each figure leaves in the mind of the observer. This distilled secret of existence lifts the speaking, moving picture above its imprisonment in the machine. It provides a base for its immaterial, spiritual existence beyond the world of machines.