John Conomos

Leftquote Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it. Rightquote
Introduction (extracted from Mutant Media)
Power Publications and Artspace, Sydney, 2008

Filmmaking seems to me a transitory and threatened art. It is very closely bound up with technical developments. If in thirty years or fifty years the screen no longer exists, if editing isn’t necessary, cinema will have ceased to exist. It will have become something else. That’s already almost the case when a film is shown on television: the smallness of the screen falsifies everything. What will remain, then, of my films?
Luis Bunuel, Pessimism (1980)

The cinema is always as perfect as it can be.
Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image (1989)

I await the end of cinema with optimism.
Jean-Luc Godard, Cahiers du Cinema (1965)

Today, anyone who is interested in cinema and new media technologies will be used to frequently encountering mournful pronouncements concerning the impending death of cinema itself and the demise of cinephilia. It is argued, in certain circles, that old media (painting, cinema and photography) will soon become passé — that cinema will end because the emerging digital media will replace it or so radically reconfigure it that we, as filmmakers, critics, and spectators, will not be able to recognise it. This is one of the more spurious techno-utopian perspectives concerning the increasing interface between cinema and the new digital media.

The shape of cinema to come has always been open to question, despite the hype and hysteria colouring debates about it during the last decade or so. To some, it is a scenario of either nostalgic disaster (cinema will end as we know it or will be substantially impoverished) or utopian technological determinism (cinema will irreversibly mutate into cyber-cinema). Both scenarios are equally problematic, for many complex reasons.

What we are witnessing, in so many different contexts, is the definition of cinema expanding to include the new audiovisual media. This has been ongoing since the 1960s.

What this book attempts to do is to two things. First, it aims to address this continuing fragmentation of cinema in the context of the increasing ascendancy of new media in our private and public lives and the very recent phenomenon of visual artists resorting to cinema, its icons, narratives, genres and history in their artworks in the art gallery world. Second, it will gather some of my essays over the years, thus charting my own trajectory in terms of my cinephilia since the 1960s and my ongoing interests in film criticism and theory — and, since the 1980s, in video art and new media. In other words, this book is, in a modest way, an autobiography of sorts, of someone whose eclectic life as an artist, writer and educator centres around cinema’s grand, unpredictable adventure since its inception in the 1890s.

The book’s three sections document in their respective ways the complex ‘criss-crossing’ connections between cinema, video art and new media. Following Raymond Bellour’s passionate enquiry into the ‘in between’ images, sounds, forms and textures of the ever-present collision of cinema with video, TV and photography, Mutant Media attempts to show, in its cross-disciplinary acategorical emphasis, the value of seeing film and the screen arts as a continuing long conversation between these various media art forms. 1  Another significant assumption that informs the book is the belief (advanced by critics such as Bellour, Raymond Durgnat, Serge Daney, Manny Farber, Adrian Martin, Sylvia Lawson and Jonathan Rosenbaum, amongst many others) that there is great aesthetic, cultural and historical capital to be obtained by going beyond the traditional academic analysis of film as an aesthetic form and into the broader context of exploring images and their intricate, kinetic connections and relations in a convulsing image culture.

For me — someone who, like my ‘baby boomer’ peers, experienced cinema as celluloid-cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, and saw and heard its subsequent thematic, formal and stylistic changes and shifts over the following three decades — Jean-Luc Godard, as a (post)modernist voyager of the moving image, stands at the centre of the book’s theoretical architecture. Godard’s poetic probing of the medium’s future in his films and criticism since the 1950s is a testament to the developing convergence between cinema, literature, painting and video. He remains one of cinema’s greatest innovators and theorists, always exploring the archaeology of cinema as the expression of the memory and history of the 20th century.

More specifically, the various essays of Mutant Media reflect the many paths I have crossed over the years as an image-maker and critic engrossed in cinema in all its different contexts — art cinema, genre cinema, experimental cinema, etc — including its more recent ‘in between’ links with video and media art and its explosion into the art gallery context. Therefore the book also traces the mutation of the moving image via video and the new technologies across our cultural and media landscape.

As for the essays themselves, they repesent my life’s role as an artist-critic, and always as a cinephile, as a form of ‘aesthetic vagabondage’ (Jean Luis Schefer). 2  Here is criticism that still believes in the fragility and poetry of the moving image, and self-reflexivity, and does not succumb to any authoritarian meta-narratives of grand, totalising film and media theory. Criticism that is speculative, historically informed, modest and intimate with the dancing textures of image, sound, space and style of a movie in all its fleeting suggestiveness. Nothing less than what Manny Farber,whose own film writings are a kind of jazz-inflected film criticism and so acutely conscious of that multifaceted imagistic, sonic and especially spatial encounter between the film and the spectator, once said: that a critic — worthy of the name — needs to find the right kind of language to best describe the ‘struggle to remain faithful to the transitory, multisuggestive complication of a movie image’. 3  This is poignantly registered when Chris Petit meets Farber in his absorbing video essay Negative Space (1999), which is a homage to Farber and his idea of a ‘termite cinema’ and to Robert Mitchum as a cool noir icon performer in Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 noir classic Out of the Past4

When we speak of ‘the death of cinema’, we need to remind ourselves that since its beginnings as a popular cultural art form, cinema was always described as a medium without a future. Witness Louis Lumiere’s fatalistic statement that cinema was ‘an invention without a future’. But cinema is still with us today in all its splendid multiplicity. Reading cinema’s ‘tea leaves’ as and seeing a single doomed future is myopic and unhelpful, for the same was said when photography first appeared apropos of painting, or when the internet first appeared apropos of mail and newspapers. So it is more productive to speak of how cinema, already the bastard form of other hybrids (architecture, theatre, music, literature, radio, etc), something which is constantly underlined in Durgnat’s gloriously open-ended film criticism, actually has multiple futures in multiple forms due to its unpredictable encounter with the new technologies. This, now, is a commonplace statement to make, but 20 years ago that was not the case. Then it amounted to heresy: cinema having other futures than the one defined in its classical form as a mass art form projected in a darken auditorium? Back in the 1970s and 1980s, to even suggest to your cinephilic friends that video was a creative medium of expression would create moral panic.

But to people such as Raymond Bellour, Jean-Paul Fargier, Jean-Luc Godard, Thierry Kuntzel and Chris Marker, amongst others, video and cinema were not mutually exclusive art forms: instead, as Darke puts it, ‘“cinema” could provide a way of looking at the moving-image as it mutates across media’. 5  Thus, ‘cinema’ became, as I discovered in the last two and a half decades, a speculative and rhizomatic way of reading across film, video and new media. Being always suspicious of ‘border patrol’ orthodoxies, embracing video as a cross-disciplinary collage form of techno-creativity was a positive thing to do in the context of my cinephilia and film criticism, for it generated an anti-ghettoised critique of official culture and monocultural thought.

To have a lifelong passion for seeing and hearing cinema means that it quickens your heart and provides a ‘pillow-text’ road map for relating to the world at large and everything in it — it is a multifaceted phenomenological adventure giving form and substance to one’s personal life in a shared experience of spectatorship. Alas, what we are now seeing is that shared mass experience of film viewing undergoing severe changes — best epitomised by the sentiments of the above opening quotes. Because of corporate cinematic culture, media technology, changing demographics and globalisation, our opportunities to see classical cinema are becoming rarer by the day. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, cinema is not dying, as Rosenbaum argues in his sharp polemic Movie Wars (2000), despite the contempt that industry shows towards the spectator and how what parades itself today as film criticism and reviewing is nothing less than vapid ‘consumer guide’ rhetoric, cinema is alive and well beyond the multiplex theatres. It is living in other sites, such as cinémathéques, film festivals, museums and other national cinemas. 6

Therefore, as a consequence of the rapid convergence in the digital media and the related countless image systems of delivery and reception, classical cinema as we have known it over the last 100 years, with its clearly delineated Aristotelian dramaturgical and narrative form, is undergoing severe aesthetic and cultural anxiety. Critically, cinema, as defined by Jean-Luc Godard in his long-awaited (but rarely seen) autobiographical pun-encrusted Historie(s) du Cinema (1988–97) — film plus projection in a dark room — is being graphically problematised by the increasing use of film in the art gallery and the museum. Cinema space, cinema venue, cinema experience are all — to reiterate — being significantly affected (in a range of ways) by the computer, video, virtual reality, computer graphics, computer games, CD-ROMs, rock videos and the internet. New meanings, new contexts of distribution, production and reception, and new audiences are being formed. But this does not mean, as some of us may think, that the proverbial baby is being thrown out with the bathwater.

On the contrary, we are being challenged by these new developments in cinema and the emergent digital media culture to critique our own understanding of cinema as text and as an institution. This also means that we need to question our ability to analyse, interpret, observe and evaluate in a non-judgmental and sceptical manner. What we need to do is become curious, inventive, self-questioning and open-minded about our emergent audiovisual culture.

We have to be careful that we don’t impose aesthetic and cultural judgments on the new media that are more relevant to older media forms, just because we have as yet to establish accepted codes and conventions of ‘reading’ these new media works. We need to be alert to the ‘unforeseen encounters’ (Deleuze), the new regimes of signs that will come through the daily visible collision between cinema and new media. To do this we should address this new intertextual phenomenon in our camera-based arts in real time, in cultural, historical and social contexts.

Let us now reconsider the future of cinema in its familiar classical definition apropos its intricate relationship with the appearance of television in the late 1940s and 1950s. Cinema has been reinventing itself ever since. To some of us, the cinema in its nostalgic, warm and communal form of movie-going, movingly described by Roland Barthes in his extraordinary essay ‘Upon leaving the movie theatre’ as a curious cocoon-like hypnotic activity taking place in the dark anonymous ambience of a movie theatre, is being radically reconfigured today. 7  There are some who believe that it may vanish forever: time will tell, but I suspect it will remain with us for some time yet. It is interesting to note that for Barthes, who was not a film buff as such, and who once described film as ‘that festival of affects’, speaks of cinema as ‘that dancing cone which pierces the darkness like a laser beam’. 8  However, in telling contrast, television (which also shows films), for Barthes, has no compelling attraction, as the ‘darkness is erased, anonymity repressed; space is familiar, articulated [by furniture, known objects], tamed’. 9  Barthes’ evocative essay succinctly delineates the complex issues surrounding cinema’s fate during the latter half of the last century in terms of its increasing entwinement with the televisual and digital media.

Cinema and its uneasy complex dialectic with television is germane to a post-New Wave cinephilia: to some of us, cinema will always be our shared kingdom of shadows, where we dream our lives before the large screen of projected flickerings and shapes, whilst television and film-on-video are something quite different. Chris Marker quotes Godard in his CD-ROM Immemory: ‘Cinema is that which is bigger than we are, what you have to look up at. When a movie is shown small and you have to look down at it, it loses its essence … What you see on TV is the shadow of a film, nostalgia for a film, the echo of a film, never a real film.’ 10

Serge Daney, who became interested in the 1980s in exploring television’s impact on cinema, was intrigued by the silent immobility of movie spectators — the way they sat and watched, in a state of ‘frozen vision’ which has its own history. 11  Both Barthes’ and Daney’s observations about movie-going relate to the cinema we have known since the advent of the talkies. Now we live in an epoch where cinema is said to be fragmenting, mutating, via the rapid expansion of the new audiovisual media in our daily lives. As indicated earlier, cinema audiences, distribution and exhibition are changing, and the mixing of analog and digital technologies is now altering the colour, definition and grain of the cinematic image itself. Popular discourses about films, particularly those that belong to the so-called theme park cinema of spectacular digital special effects, morphing and the hyper-kinetic synthetic cinematic body, is dominated by the fetish of big box-office numbers. The digitalisation of cinema in the last three decades, as Alex Horwarth reminds us, may be attributed (amongst other things) to ‘visual experiences that stretch from the TV image of the first man on the moon to hip alienation effects in rock video, a kind of fungus or virus [that] has been eating into the once transparent movie image’. 12

But we are also witnessing, as Victor Burgin articulates in his recent fine study of how cinema has been scattered across a variety of media, plus fantasy and memory, the emergence of the ‘cinematic heterotopia’. 13  This follows Michel Foucault’s essay ‘Of other spaces’, with its valorisation of the concept ‘heterotopia’, a place of incompatible, juxtaposed sites. 14  Therefore, the ‘cinematic heterotopia’, according to Burgin, ‘is constituted across the variously virtual spaces in which we encounter displaced pieces of films: the Internet, the media and so on, but also the psychical space of a spectating subject that Baudelaire first identified as “a kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness”’. 15

Once a film was experienced in a particular site, localised in space and time as a finite projection of a narrative; now, as we all know, film is no longer — as Burgin reminds us — something simply that may be ‘visited’ in the way one might attend a live theatrical performance or visit a painting in a museum. 16  In other words, a ‘film’ may be encountered as isolated iconic images, fragments or scenes in our everyday lives, in magazines, posters, on TV, on the radio, on the internet, in advertisements, newspapers, video clips, trailers, and now on our mobile phones, etc. Thus in the course of daily life we encounter a kaleidoscope of film fragments, which suggests vast aesthetic, cultural and technological implications for our understanding of cinema in the context of the new media technologies. And now, with a rapidly changing definition of ‘film’, film studies is confronting a heterogeneous ‘object’ which is equally confounding, as Burgin claims — photography and television studies. 17

Of course nowadays, the fragmentation of cinema offers a substantial challenge to academic film and media theory to eschew its past dogmatic theoretical fashions in order to come to terms with the notion that cinema today is something more than what is identified as the ‘classic’ narrative film. As Francesco Casetti puts it in his informative analysis of a half-century of film theory: ‘Now cinema is not even identified exclusively with movies … Experiences that cinema made known return in the form of exotic mass-vacations, in video clips, in the special effects of business conventions … Further, cinema in turn follows publicity, magazines, games, television. It no longer has its own place, because it is everywhere, or at least everywhere that we are dealing with aesthetics and communication.’ 18

Critics such as Bellour have been at the forefront of going beyond the limits of academic analysis of film as an aesthetic form. He has explored — in a broader context than celluloid-based cinema — images and their intricate relations in a transformative image culture. For Bellour, this has explicitly meant nothing less than a commitment to ‘saving the image’. 19  Meaning that we need to find new ways of talking about the image and new ways of seeing. And to seek to understand the diverse orders of hybrid images, structures and contexts that exist beyond classical cinema. In other words, we need to try to come to terms with the possibility that maybe film is ‘verging on obsolescence’, and that its values are vanishing with the rapid encroaching of the cinematic into contemporary art.

One of the essential reasons why cinema has been so radically reconfigured since the 1970s has been the ability of the VCR to allow us to personally manipulate the order of film’s narrative. This meant that for the first time one could accelerate and/or slow down a film. One could therefore ‘freeze’ a frame of film, view one’s favourite sequence or scene of film repeatedly, or simply, as Burgin notes, fixate upon an image. 20  Thus, Burgin argues, just as Andre Breton and Jacques Vache hopped from one cinema to another in Nantes in an afternoon — soon to become a favourite pastime of the French surrealists — one could now, with digital editing and personal computers, ‘zap’ through films shown on television and engage in a ‘sedentary version of Breton’s and Vache’s ambulatory derive’. 21
Consequently, Bellour’s attempt to find a new understanding of cinema’s transformation in contemporary screen culture and its new modes of spectatorship and participation in the context of its exploding diverse hybrid progeny in the art world is primarily based on (after Christian Metz) the recognition of the ‘still’. 22  Bellour was one of the first critics to probe what it means to ‘arrest’ the image; to stop the motion in order to unravel a film intricately, frame by frame, thereby, as Pavel Bucher and Tanya Leighton point out, making films ‘open to the critical means that [had] long been applied to still images’. 23

The power to slow down a film or freeze its pace for textual analysis was once reserved to academics and professionals who had access to 16 or 35mm flatbed editing tables, as Laura Mulvey reminds us in her fascinating article on the paradoxical tension between celluloid and new technology and its focus on the stillness of the movie image. 24  For Annette Michelson, cited in Mulvey’s eloquent article, these editing tables elicited in the user ‘the sense of control, of repetition, acceleration, deceleration, arrest in freeze-frame, release, and reversal of movement …’ 25  Nowadays, thanks to the new technologies, one can experience Michelson’s ‘heady delights of the editing table’ in exploring stillness as a property of celluloid cinema, and in the process become an inquisitive, ‘curious’ spectator — this, as Bucher and Leighton correctly suggest, is today’s artist, excavating historic cinema for its buried utopian fragments, forms, textures and spaces. 26  The curious spectator, for Mulvey, is therefore someone who realises — at the touch of a button these days — that time itself ‘can be discovered behind the mask of storytelling’, and that the new digital technologies are able to manifest the beauty of the cinema in the context of a new spectatorial experience that implies (by definition) a displacement ‘that breaks the bond of specificity’. 27  Following Bellour’s lead, Mulvey argues that a new paradoxical fascination comes into being when the movie image is stilled.

Thus artists working in video or multimedia installation are now, in the context of Mulvey’s argument for the emergence of the ‘curious’ spectator, exploring the possibilities of film — as an image, as a reference, and as a source of material — by affirming the ‘bond of specificity’ as it is being displaced in their new art forms, highlighting the distinctive time properties of video at the forefront of their mixed-media artworks.

Godard and Marker are two seminal filmmakers who experimented with the intertextual dialectics of the ‘still image’ and the moving image in their films and videos. Marker, like Godard, is a nimble ‘go-between’ between the cinema, video, photography and the digital media, and is adaptable to the convulsing new landscape of postmodern techno-creativity. Marker is concerned with the task of producing a small personal cinema — continuing the tradition of Alexandre Astruc’s notion of a camera-stylo cinema, but made possible by today’s digital tools. In other words, a cinema that is not like the grand auteur of the last century, but is nevertheless possibly a cinema of intimacy and solitude.

Marker’s oeuvre of the 1990s — including video and media installations such as The Zapping Zone and Silent Movie and CD-ROMS such as Immemory — is a fine illustration of specific artworks that have been exhibited in a number of different forms. Of course Marker is not alone in contributing to the mixed-media zeitgeist that prevails in the contemporary art world, aptly defined by Raymond Bellour as ‘the aesthetics of confusion’. Numerous filmmakers, new media and video artists and installation artists, such as Chantal Akerman, Peter Greenaway, Wim Wenders, Stan Douglas, Sadie Benning, Mona Hatoum, Gary Hill, etc., have in their respective ways contributed to this new aesthetic of mutating mixed-media artworks and presentation systems. 28

As the recent proliferation of electronic media challenges cinema’s autonomy, what exactly is happening with the filmic in art reasserting itself in the 1990s in the museum/gallery world? In other words, as Bellour puts it, when filmmakers such as Raul Ruiz, Raymond Depardon, Atom Egoyan and Harun Farocki, etc., agree to make installations, what is it that they are surrendering to? 29

How do we critique and relate to these new hybrid dynamic artworks of analog and digital media? And where is cinema in this vertiginous cultural landscape? Arguably, what we have been experiencing in the last 40 odd years is cinema and the emerging new technical media moving towards being part of the same developing multilayered narrative of audiovisual creativity. But at the same time, we need to be careful not to bypass analog media through the excessive valorisation of digital media. Promoting one without the other would be tantamount to creative myopia.

We need to remember that cinema, from its early funfair origins in the 19th century till the 1960s, uses numerous concepts, effects and techniques that were first articulated in that art form and are not necessarily evident in the new media arts. The question of cultural amnesia and ahistorical thinking is central here. How many of those who embrace video, film and interactive media installations know the significant film installations of the avant-garde cinema of the 19960s (Michael Snow, Paul Sharits, etc.)? And, indeed, how many know that the experimental cinema of the 1950s through to the 1970s, because of its collaborative multi-disciplinary nature and its modern mode of distribution and production, can (arguably) serve as a model for the digital arts of the last decade and a half?

What is critical to grasp, now more than ever, is the key notion that the screen arts in this digital age seem to be part of the one single system where each artwork consists of varying combinations of different art forms and media. Various commentators, including Bellour, Phillipe Dubois and Heinrich Klotz, to name but a few, have argued this kind of transgeneric point of view of old and new media. 30  For Bellour, contemporary cultural production is characterised by the proliferation of computer-mediated, non-binary ‘in between’ images, sounds and texts suggesting a particular reflexive, hesitant and fragmentary style of imagemaking indicating the legacy of the essay (Theodor Adorno, Roland Barthes, Michel Montaigne, and Friedrich Nietzsche) as much as the ‘border-crossing’ aesthetics of camera-stylo-inspired cinema and video (Jean-Luc Godard, Thierry Kuntzel, Chris Marker and Orson Welles). It is a highly fertile cross-disciplinary concept of late 20th century media culture encapsulating an open relationship between creativity, speculation and risk-taking that is alert to the elaborate kinetic connections between the various art forms.

This particular self-reflexive, transgeneric form of imagemaking can also be best described, as Steve Fagin reminds us, as a ‘Northwest passage’ art form (after Michel Serres’ evocative ‘two cultures’ metaphorical description of travelling through the Davis Sound, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans), where the artist can travel freely across borders ‘without a passport’. 31  Indeed, it is essential to appreciate the intertextual alchemy that is occuring between old and new media on the same plane of multimedia creativity. We live in a post-computer epoch which is notable for its increasing, virtual life of simulation, high-speed information and global networks and it is important to adopt an interdisciplinary approach to the exact and human sciences — we need to remember Serres’ multifaceted comparativism, which is based on the zigzag pattern of a fly. 32  This means having the ability to traverse many spaces of interference, located between many different things, making different connections. Serres’ distinctive indifference to temporal distance suggests that he can make unpredictable connections (all within the same timeframe) between numerous authors, texts, genres and myths.

For Serres, the past is never out of date, and nor is an art form such as classical cinema or video art: like Hermes (the operator who brings diverse things together), Serres’ provocative concept of a rapid time machine scanning texts and signs across different artistic, cultural and temporal contexts implies a fluid capacity to treat complex subjects with lightness, speed and simplicity.

This is one of the most critical tasks facing anyone who is interested in the screen arts today. We need to become switchboard operators across culture, space and time, and between analog and digital media; and we need to always question our own cultural baggage. This means becoming more ‘empirical’ and less theoretically certain of ourselves, letting go of our dogmatic certainties about the Cartesian method of philosophising and becoming more intuitive, self-critical and non-authoritarian, more alive to Wittengenstein’s challenge: ‘Don’t think, look.’ 33  To which we may also add, ‘and listen’. In other words, we need to become — in Nietzsche’s apt term — ‘experimentors’. 34

Bellour’s imaginative critique of the ‘crisis’ in the image in late 20th century culture, with its speculative emphasis on the different aesthetic, historical and technical ‘passages’ that are taking place between old and new media, is indicative of his fecund ability to explore film in the broader context of art, culture and technology. As a critic, Bellour’s work is exemplary, in that it focuses on understanding the ongoing fragmenting ‘unspeakable images’ that cut across film, video and the gallery. Thus Bellour, who was one of the first critics to see that cinema, video and photography were rapidly becoming intextricably linked to each other, was also one of the first to realise that cinema, in Darke’s words, had lost ‘its autonomy and is now one more station through which the image circulates’. 35  For Bellour, ‘the mixing, the contamination, the passage or movements between images that have accumulated at the convergence of three techniques and three arts: photography, cinema and video’ indicates that video is primarily ‘the agent of three passages between images’. 36  These mixed passages that are occurring in today’s dramatic computer-mediated collision between the camera-based art forms form the curatorial architecture of the 1990 Passages de l’image exhibition — which was curated by Bellour, Catherine David and Christine van Assche. The exhibition also pointes, as the curators suggest, to Walter Benjamin’s 1930 study of the arcades or passages of 19th century Paris and the beginnings of modern visual culture, as well as to Henri Michaux’s book of essays, Passages (1950), a work which vividly evokes (as Christopher Phillips puts it) ‘the fluid transitional zones of human consciousness’. 37

In order to appreciate the intertextual dialogue that is ensuing between traditional and new media it is crucial to note that they exist, in Klotz’s expression, ‘side by side’, in a non-mutually exclusive spirit. 38  More and more, we are aware of the significance of the intersections between the different forms of audiovisual representation and value seeing one media form through another. This is central to Philippe Dubois:

I have come to believe that it is no longer possible in today’s audiovisual and theoretical landscape to speak of art in and of itself, as if it were autonomous, isolated and self-defining … I think that we have never been in a better position to approach a given visual medium by imagining it in light of another, through another, by another, or like another. Such an oblique, off-center vision can frequently offer a better opening onto what lies at the heart of a system. Entering from the front door, where everything is designed and organised to be seen from the front, seems to me to be less sharp, less pertinent, less prone to yield discoveries than slipping in from the side39

It is precisely this non-purist point of view, this seeing of all media forms, that Dubois, along with Godard and Serres, amongst others, notes, that forms the developing narrative of audiovisual creativity. It is crucial to observe this, because it underlines how undesirable bypassing analog media for the valorisation of digital media would be. Godard is alive to the transgeneric wisdom of Dubois’ words. Regardless of the medium — film, TV, video and writing — Godard’s dazzling multifaceted oeuvre suggests an artist who is prepared to start from scratch, from zero, in making sense of the multiplying and fragmenting signs that surround him. Godard is prepared to think aloud, to stutter, and to see and hear what exactly is taking shape in front of him.

One critical reason, amongst many others, why Godard’s work is relevant today is that it raises far-reaching questions about cinema’s fate. Is it possible to make cinema in the age of the digital? Can cinema hold its own in the public spaces of spectatorship? Do cinema, video, television and digital media belong to each other? Does ‘digital cinema’ exist? These questions are essentially related to ‘the death of cinema’ debate of the last 40 odd years and salient to Godard’s art.

To speak of ‘the death of cinema’ as a collaborative popular industrial art form is, not after all, such a new thing. Anyone who cares for cinema and its historical evolution will immediately recognise this: cinema in all its splendid multiplicity, from the silent era to our present internet era of global media, will probably acknowledge this. Strictly speaking as, Michel Witte has recently pointed out in his lucid analysis of Godard’s wistful views on ‘the death of cinema’, cinema has died many ‘deaths’ since the 1910s. 40  Briefly, they include (a) the suppression of the vitality of the silent cinema by the ‘talkies’; (b) the failure of cinema in the face of the Holocaust; (c) the May 1968 critique of cinema as a reactionary cultural form; and (d) the disintegration of cinema by the omnipresent debilitating contagion of the televisual.

But also, there is some truth in Nicole Brenez’s idea that for certain filmmakers (such as Godard), ‘the death of cinema’ theme was a necessary and neat melancholic formula that helped them become productive as artists. 41

Brenez’s observation is significant because we need to remember that Godard, who has always championed, in Timothy Murray’s words, ‘the cinematic screen as an ontological foundation of the twentieth century’, was also one of the first to explore video innovatively — as early as Numero Deux (1975). 42  Thus Godard’s oeuvre is profoundly emblematic of cinema’s fate in its convergence with digital technology. Further, what Godard is lamenting is not, as Murray points out, videotech being ‘the debasement of the screen and its complex machineries of projection’. 43  It is cinema’s illuminated rectangular screen and the attentiveness of the cinematic gaze that are, for Godard, passing into today’s electronic screens of digital distraction.

When we speak of ‘the death of cinema’ we need to make a vital distinction between cinema as a social and industrial institution and the medium of film as art. In other words, we need to be precise about the fact that cinema and film are not the same thing. Film, for someone like Hollis Frampton, who was an eloquent practitioner of film as art and saw film as ‘verging upon obsolescence’ in 1975, is what takes form on the projected screen. 44  Frampton realised as early as the late 1960s, according to Bucher, how fragile film was: he maintained that ‘film is, first, a confined space … It is only a rectangle of white light.’ 45  Everything about film as an art form, including its limits, for Frampton, flowed from this illuminated rectangle and the film projector.

Today’s ‘death of cinema’ debate does not imply cinema’s imminent death, Far from it. This is a too simplistic view of cinema and its complex and shifting relationships with other media. When you hear suggestions of ‘the death of the novel’, ‘the death of painting’, ‘the death of photography’ etc., you can always be assured that there is some life left in the supposed corpse. It is naive, for a range of elaborate aesthetic, cultural and technological considerations, to believe that new media will automatically replace the old media.

What is interesting to observe is how many artists’ use of film in the 1990s — particularly Hollywood film, according to Chrissie Iles — is partly to do with their desire to connect to the idea of film as a socialising medium of communication. 46  Following Marshall McLuhan’s prediction in the 1960s that where the 19th century had been obsessed with privacy, the 20th century would be obsessed with communication, Iles argues that artists are seeking to engage with ‘the connective tissue that film creates’. 47  But the relationship between film and art is, by and large, a one-way street: artists love film, but the film world is often indifferent to this fact. Thus the art and film worlds have always represented (in Anthony McCall’s fitting words) ‘a double helix, spiralling closely around one another without ever quite meeting’. 48

Let us now return briefly to the essays in Mutant Media and see how they reflect the major thematic concerns of the book. In the first section, ‘Then and Now: Cinema’s Passing Shadows’, Chapter 1, ‘Cultural Difference in Contemporary Australian Cinema’, looks at the complex representation of ethnicity in Australian cinema since World War II and the development of certain non Anglo-Celtic filmmakers who were germane to the examination of this significant theme in their particular marginalised oeuvres. The chapter, aside from its brief autobiographical section concerning the author’s diasporic experience as spectator of Greek cinema in an inner-city cinema in the 1950s, also notes the many other filmmakers who were concerned with the inscription of ethnicity, class, gender and history in their works. Chapter 2 discusses Luis Buñuel’s only documentary, Land Without Bread, which to some is one of the first examples of the personal essay documentary form, and is a critical work in that it registers the intricate intersection between film modernism, surrealism and the essay documentary. The work is an emblematic example of the lyrical and anti-clerical surrealism that spanned the entire career of Buñuel, one of the key surrealist auteurs from the 1920s to the 1970s.

Finally, Chapter 3 in this section probes the elaborate links between contemporary art, cinema and the classic modernist works of Alfred Hitchcock. This chapter endeavours to create an overview of the recent mutating convergence between art, cinema and the gallery in terms of Hitchcock’s oeuvre.

To some, such as Godard and his Cahiers du Cinema associates, Hitchcock was the modernist filmmaker of the last century. Why is Hitchcock so attractive to contemporary artists working in photography, installation, painting and projection? And how significant is the role of art itself in Hitchcock’s oeuvre? Like Buñuel, whom Hitchcock admired a lot, Hitchcock spanned both the talkie and the sound eras.

This chapter encapsulates some of the critical concerns of the book: what is ‘cinema’, and why is it rapidly converging with other media? Addressing such important questions equates to nothing less, amongst other things, than engaging with the prophetic truth of Godard’s utterance: ‘We’re born in the museum; it’s our homeland, after all …’ 49  Why, after all, are we now — at this historical juncture — witnessing the increasing rich and overlapping convergence between film, video, new media and the gallery?

The second section, ‘Video Art: From the Margins to the Mainstream’, concentrates on the role of video art — a much misunderstood medium of techno-creativity, particularly in terms of its elaborate histories, effects and genres — in the latter half of the 20th century. Video is, as Bellour has eloquently argued, time and again, perhaps the medium that has been most responsible for the proliferation of complex ‘in between’ images between the various camera-based art forms — cinema, video, photography and television. Chapter 4, ‘Framing Australian Video Art’, is an exploratory investigation of the complex cultural, historiographical and technical questions facing anyone who is interested in looking at Australian video art, a subject that is ignorantly taken for granted, in the popular imagination, as a medium without a highly visible history or cultural memory. Given its ‘stop-start’ history of cross-disciplinary activity since the 1970s, with artists like Mick Glasheen, Jill Scott, David Perry and Steven Jones, etc., and the constant institutional refusal to archivally engage with its history, contexts and practitioners, one is obliged to contextualise video on a broad historical and political stage. Today, as this book argues, video is an essential feature of the contemporary art world. Nevertheless, there remains a substantial propensity amongst the younger generation of visual artists working in installation, photo media and mixed media, to reinvent the wheel as far as video is concerned.

Chapter 5, ‘Collage, Site, Video, Projection’, examines the importance of collage as a key facet of video installation art and projections in the last three decades or so of the last century. The chapter constructs an archaeology of sorts that addresses the complexities of video installation art as postmodern art form par excellence. Now, since the 1990s, time-based projections have become a commonplace genre of the international art world. Why are artists turning to the ‘cinema’ as a social experience and film as an art medium for their gallery video, film and interactive installations and projections? And how did installation art evolve from its early historical avant-garde contexts, and subsequently, in terms of postwar Euro-American avant-garde art — in particular, the Fluxus movement? What role did experimental cinema play in the genre’s overall development? Again, in this context, video (both as tape and as installation) has been a substantial agent in crossing film over into the contemporary gallery.

Chapter 6, ‘Border-crossing: Jean-Luc Godard as Video Essayist’, strives to locate Godard’s immensely influential oeuvre — especially, for our immediate purposes, his video and TV work as an essayist — in the context of today’s highly volatile audiovisual landscape. Godard is one of the greatest image-makers and thinkers about cinema and its futures. Godard’s cinema is pivotal to any rudimentary exploration of the image–sound–space transformation that is taking place today in our art, culture and society. He remains one of the supreme cinematic artists, whose profound ‘in between’ cinema addresses the complexities of cinema as a medium and as a collective experience. As an essayist, Godard’s art is intricately connected to the Montaigne–Mallarmé tradition of literature. While Godard linked Daney’s film criticism, which he described as ‘the end of criticism’, with a tradition that began with Diderot, one could also arguably locate Godard’s cinema and writings as belonging to this great ‘border-crossing’ tradition of criticism. 50  Thus Godard, who harnessed painting and literature to the cinema, remains one of cinema’s original explorers apropos its fertile interaction with other media.

In Section 3, ‘Liquid Screens: Art, Culture, New Media’, Chapter 7, ‘Australian New Media Arts: New Directions Since the 1990s’, delineates some of the more critical issues concerning the development of new media arts in Australia. It also looks at some young artists, both established and emerging, who have been exploring art and digital technology in their practice for the last decade or so. Australia, because of its unique geopolitical position, and its legacy of receiving ideas from Europe, Asia and America in a markedly sceptical and inventive fashion, has been one of the countries (like Canada) that is more receptive to experimenting with media art. Historically, Australian artists working in this area of contemporary artistic and cultural production have been, to date, far more numerically visible than their traditional national counterparts in media and techno-arts festivals around the world.

Chapter 8, ‘Entering the Digital Image: Jeffrey Shaw and the Quest for Interactive Cinema’, discusses the work of Australian artist Jeffrey Shaw in the context of his pioneering project to create interactive cinema. Shaw’s diverse expertise in media art since the 1960s underlines the shifting complexities of the artist’s life-long ambition to critique the illusionism of classical cinema by locating aesthetic, cultural and technical correspondences between old and new media in his multifaceted practice. Shaw’s art is a testament to his sophisticated understanding of how art, entertainment and technology have been interconnected since the Renaissance, in many intricate ways.

Chapter 9, ‘The Spiral of Time: Chris Marker and New Media’, discusses the elusive French filmmaker Chris Marker and his negotiation of new media in his work since the 1980s. Marker’s use of digital and video technology — installations, videotapes, CD-ROMS — is emblematic of his optimistic attitude towards ‘the death of cinema’ discourse of the last three decades or so — in radical contrast to Godard’s more pessimistic views on this important subject — and suggests that his editing and polemical work with André Bazin in the 1950s was an invaluable basis for his creative approach to new media. One of the major themes informing Marker’s recent media works is the cultural memory of technology.

Finally, the Conclusion, ‘In Transition, or, from Montage to Immersivity’, endeavours to succinctly sum up some of the more critical ideas informing Mutant Media’s major subject: the delineation of the ongoing convergence between cinema and other media and its vast implications for contemporary art practice, and how cinema itself, as a collective experience and as a medium, is undergoing profound aesthetic, cultural and technological changes. To understand how we are today encountering a pervasive complex transformation of the media — cinematic, televisual, photographic and videographic — that is always shaping art, mass culture and society, we need to remind ourselves that the media are always in a state of unpredictable transition.

Further, if cinema is — as some are saying — ‘verging on obsolescence’, what are the implications for our image culture? In what significant ways is the material complexity of cinema being affected by the new electronic and digital technologies, and what does this signify in terms of our more traditional academic analysis of film as an aesthetic form and the emerging desire to look at images in a broader discursive context?

We need to find new ways of looking at the moving image as it impacts across media. We also need to understand why film and art have been connecting to each other, over the last 20-odd years, in the performative space of the art gallery. Why are so many visual artists today raiding our archival memories of cinema — particularly Hollywood and, to a lesser degree, art cinema and avant-garde/experimental cinema — to create their installations and projections in our museographic spaces of the art world?

It is essential, therefore, for artists, educators, curators and spectators to see one media form through another, to practise an essayistic mobile form of image-making that hinges on a point of view that is highly elastic, always on the move, contesting the fixities of art, culture, society and technology. We need to insert ourselves into the intersections between media which initially seem to be antagonistic — through this we can explore multiple anti-binary meanings that cut across contexts, genres and forms that speak (as in Chris Marker’s La Jetée) of both the cinema and photography. It is this intertextual hybrid freedom of investigating the variety of possible rich relational figures and intersections that link old and new media, and their ‘zig-zag’ flights of highly mediated cultural expression that are embedded in Western representation, that remains such an untapped realm of critical enquiry and media experimentation.

  1. Raymond Bellour’s critical work remains (despite the bulk of it as yet not having been translated into English) of crucial importance to anyone concerned with the fate of the image and its transformations in our recent audiovisual culture. Bellour’s profoundly prescient criticism stands next to Serge Daney’s criticism — they are in a class of their own. Needless to say, Jean-Luc Godard’s commentaries, both written and filmed, are also of profound importance on this subject. For a recent overview of Daney’s newly translated critical writings see Jonathan Rosenbaum, ‘The missing image’, New Left Review 34, July–August 2005, pp. 145–51. []
  2. See Jean Louis Schefer, The Engimatic Body, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. xviii. []
  3. Cited in Chris Darke, Light Readings, London, Wallflower, 2000, p. 4. []
  4. British filmmaker/writer Chris Petit, in his recent work, particularly his collaborations with novelist/poet Iain Sinclair, is notable as film/video essayist who is concerned with his own past as a cinephile engaged in working with new technologies. Petit’s aptly named Negative Space has the same title as Farber’s monumental collection of film criticism, Negative Space, New York, Da Capo Press, 1998. []
  5. Darke 2000, p. 7. []
  6. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Movie Wars, London, Wallflower, 2002. []
  7. Roland Barthes, ‘Upon leaving a movie theatre’, in Roland Barthes (trans. Richard Howard), The Rustle of Language, London, Basil Blackwell, 1986, pp. 345–49. Barthes’ essay is cited in Jonathan Rosenbaum, Placing Movies, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995, p. 53. For a recent valuable analysis of Barthes’ essay see Victor Burgin, The Remembered Film, London, Reaktion Books, 2004, pp. 7–28 and, especially, pp. 29–43. Burgin’s book is an important study of how we encounter in everyday life isolated fragments of films, iconic images or scenes that pervade our media. []
  8. Barthes 1986. []
  9. Ibid. []
  10. See Raymond Bellour, ‘Battle of the images’, Art Press 262, November 2000, pp. 48–52. Chris Marker’s comments are cited on p. 49. Many thanks to John Gillies for introducing Bellour’s article to me. []
  11. Ibid., p. 48. On Daney’s influential career as a post-New Wave critic, whose own critical trajectory existed parallel to the recent passage of the movie image itself in contemporary culture, see Darke 2000, pp. 69–75. []
  12. See Alex Howarth’s letter in ‘Movie mutations’, Film Quarterly, September 1998, p. 47. Also see Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin (eds), Movie Mutations, London, British Film Institute (BFI), 2003. This is a timely and invaluable account of contemporary cinephilia and ‘the death of cinema’ debate (viz. Gilbert Adair, David Denby, Susan Sontag, David Thomson, etc.) in the context of a changing world film culture. On the latter issue, see also Rosenbaum 2002, pp. 19–33. []
  13. Burgin 2004, pp. 7–14. []
  14. Ibid., p. 10. []
  15. Ibid. []
  16. Ibid., pp. 8–9. []
  17. Ibid., p. 9. []
  18. Cited in Burgin 2004. []
  19. See Raymond Bellour’s essay ‘Saving the image’, in Tanya Leighton and Pavel Bucher (eds), Saving the Image: Art after Film, Glasgow, Centre for Contemporary Arts/Manchester Metropolitan University, 2003, pp. 52–77. []
  20. Burgin 2004, p. 8. []
  21. Ibid. []
  22. Leighton and Bucher 2003, p. 28. []
  23. Ibid. []
  24. Laura Mulvey, ‘Stillness in the moving image: ways of visualising time and its passing’, in Leighton and Bucher 2003, pp. 78–89. []
  25. Ibid., p. 87. []
  26. See Leighton and Bucher 2003, p. 30. []
  27. Mulvey 2003, p. 81. []
  28. Bellour 2000, p. 52. []
  29. Ibid., p. 50. []
  30. See Raymond Bellour, ‘The power of words, the power of images’, Camera Obscura 24, September 1990, pp. 7–9; Philippe Dubois, ‘Photography mise-en-film’, in Patrice Petro (ed.), Fugitive Images, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1995, pp. 152–71; and Heinrich Klost is quoted in Thomas Elsaesser and Kay Hoffman (eds), Cinema Futures, Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 1998, p. 9. []
  31. See Peter Wollen, ‘An interview with Steve Fagin’, October 41, Summer 1987, p. 99. And see Michel Serres, ‘Northwest Passage’, Semiotext(e), vol. 4, no. 3, 1984, p. 67. []
  32. Michel Serres (with Bruno Latour), Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1995, pp. 65–70. []
  33. John Rajchman, ‘The lightness of theory’, Artforum, vol. 32, no.1, 1993, pp. 165–66, 206, 211. []
  34. Ibid., p. 211. []
  35. Darke 2000, p. 161. []
  36. Quoted in Darke 2000, p. 162. Original text is Bellour 1990, p. 7. []
  37. Christopher Phillips, ‘Between pictures’, Art in America, November 1991, pp. 104–16. []
  38. For Klost’s quote, see Elsaesser and Hoffman 1998, p. 9. []
  39. Dubois 1995, p. 152 []
  40. Michael Witt, ‘The death(s) of cinema according to Godard’, Screen, vol. 40, no. 3, 1999, pp. 331–46. []
  41. Nicole Brenez, ‘Movie mutations’, Film Quarterly, September 1998, p. 48. []
  42. Timothy Murray, ‘Debased projection and cyberspatial ping: Chris Marker’s digital screen’, Parachute 113, 2004, p. 92. []
  43. Ibid. []
  44. Pavel Bucher, ‘Some notes on art as film as art’, in Leighton and Bucher 2003, p. 47. []
  45. Ibid. []
  46. See Chrissie Iles’ observations on film as medium for socialising and communication in ‘Round table: the projected image in contemporary art’, October 104, Spring 2003, p. 73. Organised by Malcolm Turvey and George Baker, this discussion group featured Hal Foster, Anthony McCall and Matthew Buckingham as well as Chrissie Iles. []
  47. ibid. []
  48. Ibid., quoting McCall, p. 74. []
  49. Cited in Jean-Luc Godard and Youssef Ishaghpour (trans. John Howe), Cinema, Oxford/New York, Berg, 2005, p. vii. []
  50. Ibid., pp. 9–10. []