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On the Stairs: Between Old and New Media

The Importance of Context

Trevor Batten (Amsterdam, November 1998)


Last October (1997) I presented work at the experimental film and video festival in Split. This was the first time I had seen my work presented outside the ghetto of "Computer" or "Electronic" Art.

Obviously, every general statement has its exceptions which confuse and deny the (too) simple basic premiss. Nevertheless: In Split I felt myself confronted by the differences between Film and Video. Broadly speaking, one could say Film seemed more content (story) orientated while Video seemed more media (sensory) orientated. Clearly there were  also perceptual differences based on image resolution and construction - but I shall ignore these (to simplify my text, not to deny their importance).

Film is much older than video, so it is understandable that it has a more highly developed (and rigid) grammatical structure. Video is technically a more spontaneous medium and so more open to playful experiment. Because computer and video are both electronic systems it is fairly simple to convert from one to the other -breaking down the media barriers which has previously made life so simple.


At present (November 1998) the 12th Stuttgart Filmwinter is in the future, so I must imagine the context in which my work will appear.

This surely demonstrates how unreliable theorists are - if they are capable (and culpable) of constructing theories based on events which they imagine could happen in the future!

Nevertheless: From information received, I read "Wand 5 e.V., a non-profit organisation promoting independent film and media culture, invites artists to present their work on Super 8, 16mm, 35mm, video, CD-rom, and via internet/www"

So, a simple but clear list of (media) categories -none of which appear to be suitable for my work.

A bit further on I read:

"12th Stuttgart Filmwinter:

Short Fiction, Experimental, Documentary, Animation, Video Art,
CD-rom, Internet, Installations, Exhibitions, Expanded Cinema"

This time a mixture of categories;  technical (Video Art, CD-rom, Internet), content (Short Fiction, Documentary), spatial (Installations, Exhibitions), procedural (animation) and open (Experimental, Expanded Cinema).

Luckily I can now sneak in via the "installation" category.

I am not complaining: I am grateful for being invited but it is sometimes difficult for artists to find "slots" into which their work can be dropped -and I can imagine it can be equally difficult for festivals to design their "fishing nets" to catch the right things too. The obvious interaction between "demand" and "supply" does not make life easier.

What I am trying to do is to demonstrate how important "media" categories are -and how little they are really understood.


The Media Spectrum

Although the computer (as a technical/scientific instrument) is (counted in nano-seconds) much older than video, for some strange reason, the historical positions are reversed in an art historical context.

Once again this demonstrates the value of hair-splitting categorization: because what I should have said was: "In a time-based visual art historical tradition the time scale is reversed".

In the 1960's I started using a computer to make static drawings based on "random" procedures in a strange mixture of Dada (chance) and Constructivist (rational) traditions. The electronic music composers were already much further (because of their tradition of a (semi-)universal meta-language - a tradition which has been abandoned within the (non-time-based) visual arts) - and a few (neo-militaristic) freaks were already experimenting with "electronic control systems" in art.

However, it was only in the 1980's and 1990's that the commercial potential of computer generated and manipulated imagery became clear and the explosive exploitation of the medium really started.

So, within a history of the moving image we move naturally from Film to Video to Computer.


The Nature of the Beast

We can then see that within this (Moving Image) context, "THE COMPUTER" really means "Internet and CD-rom" which easily translates into "Interactive Multi-media".

"Interactive" probably represents the most obvious difference with traditional media. This is a bit tricky because it introduces the question of choice into a previously linear medium. It is also conceptually a bit of a joke -because until recently "interaction" was generally considered to be a characteristic of "Organic" (Natural, Living) systems as opposed to "Mechanical" (Artificial, Dead) systems although the computer now manifests itself as an "Organic Machine".

Hopefully lovers of Orwellian "Newspeak" will also appreciate the joke in "multi-media" -because "multi-media" really means "no-media" (or at best: "one-medium").

The Conceptual Nature of the Beast

A powerful theoretical basis for the computer is found in the "Turing machine" developed by the British mathematician Alan Turing during the second world war to break the code of the (previously commercially available) German "Enigma" cryptographic machine. 

Turing (with remarkable foresight) called his model "a universal simulation machine" because it was considered capable of calculating the solution to any problem with a "calculatable solution".

Unbelievable as it may sound but a large amount of theoretical effort was spent on trying to decide how to determine whether or not a problem had a "calculatable solution".

This now appears a bit of a silly problem (similar to the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin) because the computer is now used in many contexts (process control, text editing -and even my work) where there is no final solution to be calculated. Life is a continual process!

On the other hand -the computer has survived as a "universal simulation machine" -and this is the reason it causes so much confusion.


The Loss of Reality

Our (western) culture has conditioned us (despite the warnings implicit in "Plato's cave" -which must be the first theory of virtual reality) to believe in a unreconcilable difference between "illusion" and "reality".

No wonder that we get confused when the "simulation machine" proves to be both a "Pandora's Box of Tricks" changing our world beyond recognition and at the same time a "Practical Tool" which is a useful assistant in completing practical tasks -some of which have not even been invented yet!

No wonder we tend to forget that before the (fairly recent) invention of the photographic camera all visual representations of the world were (hand-made) human constructions and not (objective?) mechanical reproductions.

No wonder that when a single machine appears capable of simulating all previous media we think that the medium is important and we forget how often practical problems rising out of the nature of our medium actually play a role in creating the final form of our work.


The Discovery of Contextual Meaning

In fact, the Universal Simulation Machine has not reduced the importance of the medium -but has actually increased it.

The difference is: The medium is no longer physical -but conceptual.

A camera is a physical apparatus but the computer is a conceptual system.

The camera (physically) defines the medium and we do not need to think about it before we can start work. The computer is a chameleon and so we do need to define our (conceptual) context before we can even begin with work.

We should not be fooled, just because the importance of conceptual context becomes almost invisible when the generation of context appears to only involve clicking the correct icon. The importance is still there -the icon (in this context) often simply means that the artist has let someone else do their work!

Yes, I do believe it is important for filmers to think about the nature of the camera they use -and to build it themselves (at least conceptually -if not physically)!

Mia Amiga!

So why am I the only artist using an Amiga?

The easy answer is: Simply because it was the best available and I see no reason to change to second (or third) best.

Just look at the basic specifications: -Video compatible -independent parallel systems for sound, image and  control/processing -multi-tasking -graphic user interface -and no millennium problem either!

Ok, so sound/image resolution is a bit rough by modern standards, but what do you expect from a basic design that is more than ten years old (and how many wintel updates did it cost to catch up!).

Update the chips (PPC), add a few extra bits here and there, pop in a Linux operating system (with "Amiga-DOS" and "Windows" capable of running as child tasks) and one should sweep the market clean if introduced today.

I really do not understand why people use the other stuff, but I do sometimes get upset that good equipment gets pushed off the market because other people make the wrong choice (encouraged by the news media)!

I cannot imagine a more practical demonstration of the importance of conceptual context!


PS. -A few words from my friends:  



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