The screen divided

Anna Munster

Linda Wallace, eurovision

Linda Wallace, eurovision

During the 1990s, the digital storage medium of the CD-ROM became a platform for artistic experiments in interactive form and participation. Accompanied by a boisterous technophilic rhetoric proclaiming the promise of liberation from passive media consumption, desktop multimedia (followed swiftly by the internet’s plethora of personal publishing systems) promised the digital avant-garde a new set of tools to cut up and into prevailing commercial narrative forms, as well as cheap, global strategies for distribution. Interestingly in the late 1990s, the consumer availability of digital video cameras and more recently the viability of large scale digital video storage through the DVD-ROM did not capture artists’ imaginations in the same way. Admittedly the libertarian hype about digital media has worn thin and, in many cultural theory and production contexts, given way to a more measured and critical assessment of the ‘newness’ of forms made possible by digital production. Nevertheless, there are relatively few examples of rigorous artistic investigations into the formal, technical possibilities and aesthetic implications of digital video.

Linda Wallace’s eurovision video work, completed in 2001, is a notable exception. Confounding genre specification and therefore implicitly resisting relegation to either digital or time-based media, it boldly announces its status as a ‘linear version of an interactive’ project. And it is precisely this montaging of form that allows eurovision to become an exploration of how visual digital operations—slicing images into each other, pulling them through the grid of the screen transforming them into information, and their slippery layering—might impact upon the temporality of video. Of course video has itself been subjected to a thorough temporal shakedown over the last 30 years, not least by the experiments with corporeal rhythm and duration by Bill Viola, Gary Hill and others. But many of these experiments have taken place against the backdrop of either the dominance or postmodern fading of linear narrative as a mass media form. eurovision instead investigates the productive possibilities for narrative by both interrogating and invigorating it through an interplay with digital aesthetics. The outcome is a new and exhilarating direction for spatial and temporal montage that no longer sees digital artefacts as mere simulators of film, the photographic image or other analogue media, but ushers in the possibility of what new media critic Lev Manovich has termed “digital cinema” (L. Manovich, The Language of New Media, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2001).

Where earlier computational experiments with narrativity, such as Peter Greenaway’s high definition video Prospero’s Books, failed to sustain narrative within the cumulative fragmentation of digital, visual layering, Wallace’s piece develops a kind of modular narrative that holds in place the splitting of the screen’s frame. eurovision is structured around 4 segments of songs sung by the Russian, Swedish, French and German entrants to the Eurovision Song Contest in 2000; each country’s contestant activating a different screen template for viewing a set of cinematic and photographic juxtaposed and sequential cut-ups comprising that sections’ module. Like a graphic mask that sits over the viewing plane, the screen is divided by blackness into smaller square and rectangular spaces that over time exchange their shape and scale and through which video and images stream at the viewer. Wallace was initially interested in imagining the piece for internet broadband delivery in which multiple streams of information could be delivered on the fly from a database of media stored on a server. (See Wallace’s artist’s statement: www.machinehunger.com.au/eurovision/statement.html.) But rather than some techno-utopian hankering after the promise of bigger and better, eurovision’s resulting linear meditation on the much proffered potentialities of speedier digital media gives viewers temporal distance from a world in which information incessantly streams at them.

The strategy of eurovision is not to substitute misinformation and chaos as a negative critique of the over-saturated and speed-obsessed arena of contemporary, global media consumption. Instead its formal experiments with the screen as a panel, almost an interface, distributes and resequences the internal coherence that the homogenisation of entities such as ‘the information age,’ cinematic narrative and European culture are presumed to possess. The vision of Europe we encounter in the video becomes increasingly situated historically and socially rather than remaining a singular, mythical entity suggested by a myopic European ‘vision.’ While the kitsch veneer of the performers and the consistently blithe pop melodies of the Eurovision song contest suggest a formula for a multicultural Europe, the filmic content playing through eurovision’s multiple screen frames, composed of cut-ups of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967), offers us a darker sense of a more alienated and displaced Europe.

For an Australian audience the video straddles tensions between representations of European-ness: the Eurovision songs, perhaps a reminder of languages left behind in the process of migration or—to Anglo-Saxon Australians—sounds and cultures never heard; the subtitles of the French films—glimpses of an intellectual and arthouse cinema scene; the 1950s and 60s Russian space program footage in the smaller side frames challenging our familiarity with the US version. If the technical effect of multiplying and dividing the screen space displaces a unified viewing perspective, then so too do the disjunctive images of Europe offset any attempt we might make at constructing this culture as easily digestible and assimilable. Yet the remarkable achievement of eurovision is its sheer watchability. It elegantly realises just the right blend of fragmentation and repetition. The re-use of older media form and content has been a common feature of digital art and of digital media within advertising and popular culture. And yet this can lead to a kind of visual malaise in which the content of a piece is evacuated or else the audience’s affective response is caught up in admiring technical mimicry. Instead the cinema and television cut-ups in eurovision conjure memories of a nascent post-war European culture grasping at the beginnings of global and mass media culture; a culture out of which contemporary information cultures are born. The subtitles from Godard’s film replayed and multiplied across the screen and tempo of the video, speaking to us from the 1960s of the failure of communication are just as relevant for the state of global communications networks today.

The repetition and fragmentation of form and media in eurovision successfully holds the eye because it is not used as simple commentary on the repetitiveness or loss of meaning produced by digital culture. Instead the selection and replaying of only segments from the films or television footage indicate that the digital reiteration of other media can provide new ways of understanding forms such as narrative. Linda Wallace redeploys only subplots from the Bergman film revolving around the characters of the knave and the witch that deal with the way social groups produce outsiders. This focus on the space of the outside is taken up at a formal level by the video’s digital aesthetics, which investigate the production of narrative outside of a centralised coherence or structure. Against the expectation of a linear unfolding of plot driven by a single event or character, eurovision suggests narrative can be produced through techniques of recombination, moving the subplots or modules around, pulling them apart and fitting them back together again. Narrative can then be seen to rest not upon linearity and singular viewpoint but on the layering, combination and texturing that differently sequenced modules bring to events. It is here that works like eurovision offer us new and productive possibilities for digital video as it thoughtfully remediates the content, form and history of painting, graphics, photography, film and television.

Eurovision, video, Linda Wallace, 2001. www.machinehunger.com.au/eurovision/

RealTime issue #53 Feb-March 2003 pg. 22

© Anna Munster; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2003