Structural Digital Video
By Clint Enns
In 1969, the American avant-garde cinema historian P. Adams Sitney coined the term “structural film.” Sitney linked together filmmakers, among them Michael Snow, George Landow, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, Tony Conrad, Ernie Gehr, and Joyce Wieland, who endeavored to expose film’s inherent structure, it’s properties, cognitive effects, spatial and temporal properties. These artists, according to Sitney, had created a “cinema of structure wherein the shape of the whole film is predetermined and simplified.” Shape was “the primal impression of the film,” while content “minimal and subsidiary to the outline.”
Sitney’s content-restrictive definition of structuralism was challenged by the British filmmaker and film theorist Peter Gidal, who, in 1976, emphasized structural films as “non-illusionist,” noting the use of filmic “devices that result in demystification or attempted demystification of the film process.” Gidal distinguished structural films from documentaries “which transparently document a narrative;” rather, “each film is a record (not a representation, not a reproduction) of its own making,” the implication being that structural films “are at once object and procedure.”
Consider the zooming camera in Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967), an exploration of cinematic space further examined by Ernie Gehr in Serene Velocity (1970). Or, the presentation of film’s projection rhythm (1/24th-of-a-second) central to Tony Conrad’s The Flicker (1966). Paul Sharits’ Axiomatic Granularity (1973) consists of nothing but the film grain alone. These, and films like them, describe certain technical boundaries of film technology. Many early structuralist films also document the psychological experience of film process: Kurt Kren’s Trees in Autumn (1960) is a five-minute composition of “shots” (ranging from 1 to 8 frames) that demonstrates a discrepancy between film-time and viewer-time. The subjective nature of cinematic experience is the subject of Ken Jacobs’ Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son (1969). A Lecture is a film performance for which Hollis Frampton filtered lights to generate colors and images, creating a unique environment for visual sensory perception, first “screened” in 1968.
Structuralist practices and aesthetics were naturally carried over to a new generation of media equipment in the late-60s and early-70s. David Hall pointed a video camera directly into bright lights and recorded the “burning” vidicon tube to create the light trails in Vidicon Inscriptions (1973-74), a technique later repeated by Mary Lucier in Dawn Burn (1975) and Bill Viola in Hatsu-Yume (First Dream) (1981). Lutz Becker used video feedback to create loops in works like Horizon (1966-68), an exploration carried on by artists like Bill Gwin, who wrote “Video Feedback: How to Make it; An Artist's Comments on its Use; A Systems Approach.” Nam June Paik, Eric Siegel, Bill Etra and Steve Rutt hacked television equipment and built video synthesizers for real-time signal manipulation. By 1971 institutions like the Experimental Television Centre in Owego, New York offered residency programs and research funding for structuralist explorations.
It follows that the structuralist tradition has gone digital. The materiality of computer files is readily manipulated through niche software and algorithm exploration. Rosa Menkman, known for her study of digital artifacts like glitch, compression, noise and feedback, recently released “A Vernacular of File Formats,” in which she categorizes “ways to exploit and deconstruct the organizations of file formats” to create “new, brutalist designs.” One such technique, datamoshing, bleeds together pixels from two incoming videos streams. Works like Takeshi Murata’s datamoshed Monster Movie (2005), which aestheticizes artifacts of video compression, are structuralist visualizations of digital forms. For Data Diaries (2003), Cory Arcangel wrote new codec-algorithms to digitally convert his computer’s memory data into playable Quicktime video files. Nick Briz similarly manipulated the codecs of various online upload-video hosting sites to create Black Compressed (2009), four minutes and thirty three seconds of solid black video, compressed to moving Richteresque rectangles, a derivation of John Cage’s seminal 4’33’’ from 1952.
Reference to a lineage of non-illusionist works is sometimes literal: Barbara Lattanzi designed open-source software—“EG Serene” and “HF Critical Mass”—that approximate the editing patterns found in Gehr’s Serene Velocity and Frampton’s Critical Mass (1971). Rebecca Baron and Douglas Goodwin transformed a digital copy of SereneVelocity to create Lossless#4 (2009), a composition of digital vectors, extending Gehr’s original study of distance and camera focus to the movement of pixels between frames. Similarly, Cory Arcangel applied iMovie's “Aged Film” filter to a video file, then transferred the file to 16mm film to create Structural Film (2007). The result is a digital mimic of the dust and scratch-marked clear film leader, Zen for Film, that Nam June Paik projected in 1962.
In 2009, some artists balked when videographer Nabil Elderkin datamoshed for Kayne West’s “Welcome To Heartbreak” video. Briz points out these videos glitches are not used as authentic artistic expression, they are merely an “effect,” a “gimmick” in “an attempt to add innovative visuals to his otherwise mediocre hip-hop.” Structural digital artists may have reasons to be concerned about Elderkin's use of the datamoshing technique. This exploitation is, according to Briz, mainstream culture “ignoring any call to real experimentation and exploration into the nature of the medium.” On the other hand, in a community where technique sharing is the status quo, novelty of technique is less important than the interaction between content and form. Publicly sharing techniques offers new opportunities for structural experimentation and contributes to the dialogue surrounding the medium. For instance, consider Paul B. Davis’ article titled “STRUCTURES FOUND – STRUCTURES LOST,” the companion piece to his video series Compression Studies 1-4 (2007). In this article Davis explains how to create his lo-fi effects using Virtual Dub open source video editing software, offering the creation process itself as a potential experience for the audience.
This eagerness to share means that content and experimentation have become the primary concerns of many video artists. Within the structural framework, the content of the work is linked, not limited to, an experience of the process. It is exactly this connection that reveals depth in our perception of and interaction with a technology, that ties a generation of new media artists to the films of Frampton and Sharits, and, according to Peter Gidal, defines structuralism.
1. George Landow changed his name to Owen Land in the late 1970s.
2. P. Adams Sitney, “Structural Film,” Film Culture Reader, edited by P. Adams Sitney (New York: Praeger, 1970), p. 327. (Originally published in FilmCulture 47, Summer 1969.)
5. Peter Gidal, “Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film,” Structural Film Anthology, edited by Peter Gidal (London: British Film Institute, 1976), p. 1.
7. Ibid., p.14.
8. See On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton, edited by Bruce Jenkins (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), p. 125.
9. A report for The National Center for Experiments in Television (NCET), no date is available.
10. Rosa Menkman, “A Vernacular of File Formats: A Guide to Databend Compression Design” (self-published, August 2010). A copy is available for download here: http://rosa-menkman.blogspot.com/2010/08/vernacular-of-file-formats-2-workshop.html
11. John Michael Boling uses the term “datamoshing” in his Rhizome editorial, “Pixel Bleed,” published February 25, 2009. See http://rhizome.org/editorial/2009/feb/25/pixel-bleed/
12. Nick Briz, from the Comments section of Boling, “Pixel Bleed,” accessed December 15, 2010.
14. Paul B. Davis, STRUCTURES FOUND – STRUCTURES LOST (London: Five Years Gallery, 2008). A copy is available for download here: http://www.fiveyears.org.uk/archive2/pages/036/pages/036.html
15. Virtual Dub is a free, open source video processing utility for AVI/MPEG-1, created by Avery Lee.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Clint Enns is a video artist and filmmaker from Winnipeg, Manitoba. His work, which primarily deals with moving images created with broken and/or outdated technologies, has shown nationally and internationally at festivals, alternative spacs, and microcinemas. He recently completed a Master's degree in mathematics at the University of Manitoba, and will continue his studies in cinema and media at York University in Fall 2011.