Form over content – when the technology is the product?

This week, I had my first experience of 3D cinema, with the rather amazing “Gravity”.

Image source: gravitymovie.warnerbros.com

Image source: gravitymovie.warnerbros.com

I wouldn’t say I’m an instant convert to the 3D format, but I certainly agree with many of the critics – that “Gravity” is not only a film that warrants 3D, it is possibly the best space movie since “2001: A Space Odyssey”. And while the CGI and 3D technologies combine effectively to take a relatively simple story and turn it into an epic, it is not just a case of “form over content” – there is real substance in this film, a great example of using the technology to enhance the audience experience, rather than hoping it can paper over the cracks of clumsy narrative and lame dialogue.

My hesitation in embracing the 3D experience stems from a suspicion that the format dictates the story, that the technology is the product. A few days before watching “Gravity”, I saw posters advertising the new Hobbit movie, “The Desolation of Smaug”. Not content with the “standard” 3D version, there is also a new format “3D HFR” (High Frame Rate, whatever that means). Oh, and for traditionalists there is also “normal” 2D.

Personally, I could never get into the whole Lord of the Rings saga – even as a child, Tolkien’s stories left me cold. So I have not seen any of the films, but when I saw a 3D preview for “Smaug”, my worst suspicions were confirmed: this really is a case of form over content, which is ironic given the legacy of the source material. To me, the 3D images looked like the pages of a children’s pop-up book, because the depth of vision is so poor that the actors look like animated cardboard cutouts badly superimposed on CGI landscapes.

Many contemporary productions, full of CGI and “enhanced” for 3D make Walt Disney’s Penguin Dance in “Mary Poppins” look far more naturalistic in comparison. And what about “Who framed Roger Rabbit?” as the pinnacle of live action meets cartoon imagery – surely Jessica Rabbit has more vitality than all the characters in “Avatar” put together?

Technology is a wonderful thing – used creatively and effectively it can deliver fantastic results, making great content even better. But used slavishly, and as an end in itself, it cannot compensate for poor material, and at best becomes a sterile technical exercise.

In Praise Of Analogue…

Let me start by saying that I am not a technophobe, and I certainly do not consider myself a Luddite. But in this digital age, I do have a certain fondness for all things analogue.

Cassette Culture is alive and well in the analogue world...

Cassette Culture is alive and well in the analogue world…

There are growing analogue trends in:

  • photographyLomography and Polaroid
  • music – vinyl and cassette
  • publishing – zines and artists’ books
  • filmSuper 8
  • graphics – letterpress
  • arts & craftsEtsy and Craftsy

More and more of us are drawn to the charms and quirks of the analogue world, and not out of some perverse counter-culture posturing – we actually like this stuff for its own sake, and for the qualities that it represents:

  • slowness
  • tactile
  • considered
  • basic
  • hand-made
  • imperfect
  • uncomplicated
  • finite
  • flawed
  • serendipitous
  • warm
  • personal
  • custom-made
  • limited
  • simplicity

In fact, these key characteristics of analogue are antonyms of most things digital….

For many people who are using analogue production processes, the medium really is the message; and what you see really is what you get, because the products are usually a true representation of the work and effort that go in to making them.

However, the appeal of analogue is not just about the format or the technology; the inherent limitations of analogue production processes lead to natural constraints which inform the content and determine the final outcome of the finished object. For example, the number of photographs an analogue camera can take at any one time is limited by the length of the roll of film; a vinyl album can carry about 22-23 minutes of music on each side; a plate used in a hand-made printing process can usually generate editions of no more than 30 before it starts to deteriorate.

There are some traditional analogue domains where the digital format does enhance the user experience e.g., digital radio (although I sometimes miss the hum and crackle of AM broadcasts); or where digital technology introduces a whole new dimension e.g., 3-D printing; or where digital can resurrect/replicate a virtual experience of analogue e.g., iOS apps that mimic classic analogue synthesizers.

On the other hand, on-line communities are moving to “analogue” events via meet-ups because being there in person offers a deeper connection. I recently attended an afternoon salon conducted by a digital media agency, because they recognize the need to interact face-to-face with customers.

I anticipate that in response to a growing sense of digital disintermediation, more of us will start to engage with and interact through analogue media. This should not be seen as an out and out rejection of digital, but more as a means to establish balance and to find a deeper level of engagement beyond the often superficial shimmer of digital gloss.

Declaration of interest: the author, under an assumed nom de musique, recently released a limited edition cassette version of his last album, available on-line and from select record stores in Melbourne

Is being “creative” more authentic than being “realistic”?

How do we judge something to be authentic in the Information Age? In the 1990’s, I worked on several projects to transfer reference books from print to CD-ROM and on-line formats. Because much of this material comprised official documents of record, the digital versions had to be “authentic” to the hard copy (even though they were being presented in a totally different medium) and employ embedded cross-referencing, indexing and other navigational tools. In short, the digital editions had to have the visual likeness of a microfiche copy, the readability of an e-book, and the functionality of an html5 website (if I may be permitted a mixed technical metaphor).

The quandary facing many product developers and content curators these days is, “How far should we go in the pursuit of “realism” (and by inference, “authenticity”) when having to make editorial, creative and technical choices to achieve credible outcomes?” And as consumers, the challenge we face is, “How do we know that what we see, read, hear or experience is an accurate depiction of something that actually exists or once happened/existed, or that it represents a consistent rendering/interpretation of real/imagined/possible events within the context and confines of the media being used?”

The issue is not about “real” in contrast to “virtual”, “original” as opposed to “replica”, “copy” rather than “counterfeit” – and certainly not about “truth” over “fiction”.

I’m not going to dwell on whether our virtual lives are any more/less authentic than our flesh and blood existence – that’s a matter of EI and self-awareness. I’m not interested in debating the merits of CGI technology in cinema, or questioning the use of auto-tuning in pop music – that’s a matter of aesthetics. And I’m not even going to argue that Photoshop has no place in the news media – that’s a matter of ethics.

I’m more concerned with understanding how technology, combined with content, connectivity and convergence has reshaped the way we engage with new media, to the point that our ability to assess information objectively is impaired, and our experience of authenticity is seriously compromised.

Now for a test: Which of the following statements is the most authentic (or least inauthentic)?

1) “Documentary claims NASA commissioned film director Stanley Kubrick to fake the TV images of the Apollo 11 moon landing”

2) “Pop singer Beyonce mimes to the national anthem at President Obama’s Inauguration”

3) “Jane Austen to publish a new edition of “Pride and Prejudice”, featuring FaceBook, Twitter and sexting”

4) “Apple Corp announces that The Beatles are reforming, and will be performing their 1967 album “Sgt Pepper” live on tour”

OK, before dissecting the answers, I confess that one of these scenarios is totally made up – although, as we shall see, all of them have some basis in “reality”, and each of them presents a different dimension of “authenticity”.

1) Moon Landing: A few years ago, a documentary by William Karel called “The Dark Side of the Moon” suggested that NASA had indeed faked the Apollo 11 broadcasts. This story was based on an actual conspiracy theory that the TV images were a hoax, giving some credence to the notion that the Americans never went to the moon. The documentary uses a combination of recycled/re-contextualized archive footage, scripted interviews featuring real people playing themselves and professional actors playing fictional characters. To add credibility to the hoax theory that NASA commissioned Stanley Kubrick to shoot the fake moon landing in a studio, Karel involved Kubrick’s widow and other former colleagues. However, the names of the fictional characters are taken from characters in Kubrick’s own films. There are also bloopers and out-takes from the “interviews”. So, by the end of the film, it should be clear that the whole thing is a clever set-up – except that for some moon landing sceptics, “The Dark Side of the Moon” has lent support to their conspiracy theory. Recently, Gizmodo posted a brilliant rebuttal to the hoax theorists – namely, that neither NASA nor Kubrick could have faked the moon footage in 1969 because the required technology didn’t exist at that time…. I guess we’ll call this one an authentic/fictional mockumentary based on a real/imagined conspiracy theory concerning an alleged/improbable hoax.

2) Beyonce: It was revealed that Beyonce lip-sync’d her rendition of the national anthem, but she was miming to a real recording that she made with the actual US Marine Band the day before. Apart from the ongoing debate about whether pop singers do/don’t or should/shouldn’t mime during live performances (and let’s not get into the use of pre-recorded backing tracks…), the issues here are three-fold:

a) Does it make any difference to our experience of the event? (Probably not – anyone who heard Meatloaf perform at the AFL grand final a while back probably wishes he HAD been lip-sync’ing…)

b) Is Beyonce the first performer to mime at the Inauguration? No, and she won’t be the last, so big deal (Pre-recorded material is often used in these situations to compensate for bad weather, poor acoustics or possible technical hitches).

c) Does it make for a less authentic event? Possibly, but as others have pointed out, the President had taken the official oath the day before, and the outdoor event was more of a ceremony.

So, I’ll just label this an innocently staged event incorporating a well-intentioned fabrication designed to give the public what they want.

3) Jane Austen: This particular example of literary license does not involve the posthumously discovered work of a 19th century novelist. It doesn’t feature a 21st century medium channelling words from a dead writer. It doesn’t even concern the literary conceit of a contemporary author attempting to re-imagine a sequel to a classic work by an illustrious predecessor. (Although similar publishing events to all three scenarios have occurred in recent memory, so each of them is theoretically possible.) Instead, this refers to the forthcoming third “Bridget Jones” novel by Helen Fielding. It is generally  acknowledged that Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” was a reference point for Fielding’s first novel “Bridget Jones’s Diary”. The latter is neither a pastiche nor a parody of Austen, but does use similar themes and scenarios from “Pride and Prejudice” and places them in a contemporary context. Given that Fielding has recently been quoted as saying she has an interest in internet dating, it’s not too far-fetched to suggest that her characters will be busily sexting each other after a long session in the local wine bar. Let’s put this one in the category of artistic hommage, respectfully and authentically executed with due deference to its literary source material, and with a keen awareness of contemporary mores.

4) Sgt Pepper: OK, I admit that this scenario is totally fake, but it provides for some interesting hypotheses on how it might be done (assuming today’s technology, so no time-travel involved).

First, some background: as part of the music industry’s infatuation with managing and curating its back catalogue, there has been a noticeable trend for artists to tour and perform entire “classic” albums live on stage. This phenomenon reached its zenith last year, when German electronic band Kraftwerk performed a different album from their back catalogue at eight consecutive concerts staged in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. (Actually, I recall seeing Pink Floyd in 1977 when they played their two most recent albums, “Animals” (1977) and “Wish You Were Here” (1975) in full and in the exact same sequence as the original LP’s…)

Second, until cryonics and human cloning are a scientific certainty, I won’t be suggesting that we exhume the two members of The Beatles who are no longer with us, or grow a couple of replicants. Equally, I’m not interested in whether the 2009 interactive video game, “The Beatles: Rock Band” allows me and my friends to re-enact the experience of being The Beatles playing on stage – it’s not the same as a live concert performance.

Instead, here’s how the “Sgt. Pepper” album might be brought to life:

a) The surviving members of The Beatles recruit some colleagues to make up the numbers (cf. The Who, Rolling Stones, etc.)

b) A Beatles tribute band is hired to recreate the album faithfully and in its entirety (cf. too many examples to mention – there’s even a new trend to recreate “classic” rock concerts on their relevant anniversary. Meanwhile, American band Devo formed a new “version” of themselves, called Devo 2.0, comprising young unknown musicians – tellingly, this venture was a collaboration with Disney)

c) Use holograms to substitute for the missing members of the original line-up (well, holograms aren’t yet viable, but ghostly projections are a possibility – cf. deceased rapper Tupac – and the music business has produced various examples of posthumous, exhumed and recreated material featuring dead pop stars, The Beatles included)

d) Send out a team of replica android Beatles to perform on stage (cf. Kraftwerk – again)

Except that, the “real” Beatles abandoned live performances in 1966, thus they never performed any of the songs from “Sgt. Pepper” live in public (in fact, “Sgt. Pepper” is generally considered to be the first example of a rock album created totally within a studio environment, and never conceived of as a live experience, even though it is a loosely-defined concept album featuring a fictional “live” band – how post-modern can you get?). Hence, any attempt to stage or recreate a live concert of “Sgt. Pepper” as performed by The Beatles, even if it is plausible, would have to be considered totally inauthentic. But with  imagination (and a little help from our friends?) we can always dream…

POSTSCIPT: After posting this article, I came across the following insight into the creative process by novelist William Boyd:

“…the best way to arrive at the truth is to lie – to invent, to fictionalize. The curious alchemy of art – rather than the diligent assembling of documentary fact – can be a swifter and more potent route to understanding and empathy than the most detailed photographs or the most compendious documentation. You have to do your homework, sure – authenticity has to be striven for – but in the end it is the fecundity and idiosyncrasy of the novelist’s imagination that will make the thing work – or not.” [Taken from Boyd’s anthology of non-fiction writing, “Bamboo” (2005)]

Gizmodo

Beyonce

Fielding

Back Catalogue

Edifice and Artifice – Urban Planning and Verisimilitude

Art can provide a compelling antidote to all the moral, philosophical, economic, scientific, religious and political hyperbole that bombards and confronts us every day. By referencing the technical processes of artistic practice, the study of art history and the language of critical art theory, we can learn to interpret and navigate these conflicting forces, and even challenge them. In our increasing over-reliance on all things digital, we need an artistic sensibility to help us re-connect with tangible reality. There are also some suggestions that enlightened companies have started hiring art graduates to bring an alternative perspective to their organizations – to tap into hitherto under-utilised skills and to employ this external expertise for internal problem solving, decision-making and strategic analysis.

Two recent cultural experiences have provided me an opportunity to reflect on how more than ever we need art to help make sense of the world, especially when interpreting data and making strategic planning decisions based on informed assumptions, market research and business analysis – because the standardized digital representation of everything means we often fail to venture beyond the surface of things.

The first event was a screening of “Urbanized”, an intriguing documentary by Gary Hustwit, showing at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. The film is the final part of Hustwit’s design trilogy (following “Helvetica” and “Objectified”) and looks at several examples of good (and bad) urban planning around the world.  It provides cause for both optimism and pessimism on the future of the city – but it is mostly a positive survey.

One critical section of the documentary is an exploration of Brasilia, a flawed example of a “planned” city, with marvellous civic edifices and expansive freeways – except that for the people who live there, especially poorer and car-less citizens, it just doesn’t work as a built environment where they are supposed to live, work and play. Scratch beneath the surface, and we see a dysfunctional city. The moral of this particular story is that planners need to engage with the community, and work from the perspective of the end user, not simply from a visionary blueprint. Meanwhile, Stuttgart provides a salutary lesson in how poor public communication around policy, decision-making and execution can lead to a government being voted out of office, yet the majority of voters remain in favour of the politicians’ original planning decision.

There are so many things to like about this simple but effective film: the absence of a voice-over, allowing the stories to largely speak for themselves (within the usual confines of editorial decisions); the choice selection of urban locations and planning case studies; a range of informed and mostly objective participants and commentators; plus simple cinematography and a great soundtrack. Now I want my own city to adopt the public bus system from Bogota and the bike lanes from Copenhagen (and maybe the High-Line Park from New York).

The second cultural event comprised two solo (but related) exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria, featuring the photography of Thomas Demand and Jeff Wall respectively. Both artists produce large scale works, both employ sculptured components (light boxes used as fames, images printed on Perspex to imply depth) and both of them use constructed or staged settings to create their images.

Thomas Demand’s work looks deceptively simple and straightforward – mostly large still-life pictures of urban, industrial and technology-based interiors. However, if we dig below the surface verisimilitude, we can see that the images are really photographs of models made from paper and cardboard – sculptures that meticulously and painstakingly recreate these scenes rather like stage-sets, which simultaneously seem totally familiar yet frankly disturbing. This latter response can be explained by the absence of people and an eerie lack of any human presence in the images, plus the knowledge that all this visual data is merely a form of hyper-reality; but at the same time it is actually false, or at best an impression or recreated memory.

In comparison to his counterpart, Jeff Wall’s photography has the appearance of being more naturalistic (especially as most of Wall’s images feature people in everyday settings), even though in some cases it is just as surreal and hyper-real. The latter is achieved by the use of scale and backlighting, while the former is implied by the contradiction and juxtaposition between subject (content), and setting (context). This body of work also incorporates more narrative elements, and manages to make external references to literature, film and art history.

Both artists are quietly academic in their practice, and to some viewers this might present a barrier to understanding if they are not familiar with the accompanying art theory or critical analysis. But this need not be an obstacle to our engagement with the work, allowing us to appreciate it for what it is, and to reach our personal interpretations and conclusions.

Art enables us to relate individual stories and collective experiences, and recognizes that there are many truths, not just a single truth. Without art, we would lose a vital tool to interpret and narrate much of the world around us that cannot be explained by other media. And in the digital age of “virtual” and “hyper” realities, increasingly art is the only tangible means we have to give context and substance to our imagination without it being compressed and dis-intermediated by reductionist and homogenised technologies.

Finally, art in the 21st century is probably the only continuous link we have to our past – because as language and technology have evolved over time, art remains a constant aesthetic touchstone.

http://www.acmi.net.au/lp_urbanized.aspx

http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/whats-on/exhibitions/exhibitions/jeff-wall-photographs

http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/whats-on/exhibitions/exhibitions/thomas-demand