Interactivity and the “Video Essay”

paradoxes-of-suture1

Recently, I posted a video essay exploring suture, space, and vision in a scene from Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). Following my video essay hijab.key, which experimented with dirt-cheap DIY production (namely, using Apple’s Keynote presentation software instead of the much more expensive Adobe Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro for video authoring), the more recent video, “Don’t Look Now: Paradoxes of Suture,” was also an experiment in using splitscreen techniques for deformative purposes, intended to allow the viewer to alternate between “close” (or focused) and “distant” (or scanning, scattered) viewing modes.

What I have begun to realize, however, is that these videos are pushing at the boundaries of what a “video essay” is or can be. And I think they are doing so in a way that goes beyond the more common dissatisfactions that many of us have with the term “video essay” — namely, the questionable implications of (and formal expectations invoked by) the term “essay,” which apparently fails to describe many videographic forms that are either more poetic in nature or that indeed try to do argumentative or scholarly work, but whose arguments are less linear or explicit than those of traditional essays. These are good reasons, I think, to prefer a term like “videographic criticism” (except that “criticism” is perhaps too narrow) or “videographic scholarship” over the more common “video essay.”

But these recent pieces raise issues that go beyond such concerns, I suggest. They challenge the “videographic” part of the equation as much as, or even more than, the “essayistic” part. Take my “Don’t Look Now” video, which as I stated is designed to give the viewer the opportunity to experiment with different ways or modes of looking. By dissecting a scene into its constituent shots and laying them out in a multiscreen format, I wanted to allow the viewer to approach the scene the way one looks at a page of comics; that is, the viewer is free to zoom into a particular panel (which in this case is a looping video clip) and become immersed in the spatiotemporal relations it describes, only then to zoom back out to regard a sequence, row, or page of such panels, before zooming back in to the next one, and so on. Thus, two segments in the recent video consist simply of fifteen looping shots, laid out side by side; they are intended to give the viewer time to experiment with this other, less linear mode of looking.

But the video format itself is linear, which raises problems for any such experiment. For example, how long should such a splitscreen configuration be allowed to run? Any answer will be arbitrary. What is the duration of a page of comics? The question is not nonsensical, as cartoonists can establish rhythms and pacings that will help to determine the psychological, structural, or empirical duration of the reading experience, but this will never be an absolute and determinate value, as it is of necessity in the medium of video. That is, the linear format of video forced me to make a decision about the length of these segments, and I chose, somewhat arbitrarily, to give the viewer first a brief (30 sec.) glance at the multiscreen composition, followed later (after a more explicitly argumentative section) by a longer look (2 min. at the end of the 9 minute video). But since the whole point was to enable a non-linear viewing experience (like the non-linear experience of reading comics), any decision involving such a linearization was bound to be unsatisfactory.

One viewer commented, for example:

“I think the theory is interesting but why the lengthy stretches of multi shot with audio? Irritating to the extent that they detract from your message.”

Two important aspects come together in this comment. For one thing, the video is seen as a vehicle for a message, an argument; in short, it is regarded as an “essay.” And since the essayistic impulse combines with the video medium to impose a linear form on something intended as a non-linear and less-than-argumentative experimental setup, it is all too understandable that the “lengthy stretches” were found “irritating” and beside the point. I responded:

“For me the theory [of suture] is less interesting than the reading/viewing technique enabled by the splitscreen. I wanted to give the viewer time to make his or her own connections/alternate readings. I realize that’s at odds with the linear course of an ‘essay,’ and the length of these sections is arbitrary. In the end I may try to switch to an interactive format that would allow the viewer to decide when to move on.”

It was dawning on me, in other words, that by transforming the Keynote presentation into a video essay (using screen recording software), I had indeed found an interesting alternative to expensive video authoring software (which might be particularly valuable for students and other people lacking in funding or institutional support); at the same time, however, I was unduly amputating the interactive affordances of the medium that I was working in. If I wanted to encourage a truly experimental form of vision, then I would need to take advantage of precisely these interactive capabilities.

DontLookNow-ParadoxesOfSuture-INTERACTIVE-Standalone-2016-02-16.

Basically, a Keynote file (like a PowerPoint presentation) is already an interactive file. Usually the interactivity is restricted to the rudimentary “click-to-proceed-to-the-next-slide” variety, but more complex and interesting forms of interaction (or automation) can be programmed in as well. In this case, I set up the presentation in such a way as to time certain events (making the automatic move from one slide to another a more “cinematic” sequence, for example), while waiting for user input for others (for example, giving the user the time to experiment with the splitscreen setup for as long as they like before moving on). You can download the autoplaying Keynote file (124 MB) here (or by clicking on the icon below) to see for yourself.

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Of course, only users of Apple computers will be able to view the Keynote file, which is a serious limitation; ideally, an interactive video essay (or whatever we decide to call it) will not only be platform agnostic but also accessible online. Interestingly, Keynote offers the option to export your slideshow to HTML. The export is a bit buggy (see “known bugs” below), but with some tinkering you can get some decent results. Click here to see a web-based version of the same interactive piece. (Again, however, note the “known bugs” below.)

HTML5_Logo_256

In any case, this is just a first foray. Keynote is probably not the ultimate tool for this kind of work, and I am actively exploring alternatives at the moment. But it is interesting, to say the least, to test the limits of the software for the purposes of web authoring (hint: the limits are many, and there is constant need for workarounds). It might especially be of interest to those without any web design experience, or in cases where you want to quickly put together a prototype of an interactive “essay” — but ultimately, we will need to move on to more sophisticated tools and platforms.

I am interested, finally — and foremost — in getting some feedback on what is working and what’s not in this experiment. I am interested both in technical glitches and in suggestions for making the experience of interacting with the piece more effective and engaging. In addition to the Keynote file and the online version, you can also download the complete HTML package as a single .zip file (66 MB), which will likely run smoother on your machine and also allow you to dissect the HTML and Javascript if you’re so inclined.

zip

However you access the piece, please leave a comment if you notice bugs or have any suggestions!

Known bugs, limitations, and workarounds:

  • Keynote file only runs on Mac (workaround: access HTML version)
  • Buggy browser support for HTML version:
    • Horrible font rendering in Firefox (“Arial Black” rendered as serif font)
    • Offline playback not supported in Google Chrome
    • Best support on Apple Safari (Internet Explorer not tested)
  • Haven’t yet found the sweet spot for video compression (loading times may be too long for smooth online playback)
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Post-Cinema at SCMS 2016 #scms16

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At this year’s conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (March 30-April 3, 2016), I will be involved in two post-cinema related panels.

First, on Saturday, April 2, 2016 09:00AM-10:45AM (panel N9), I will be giving a talk as part of a panel on affect, collectivity, and contemporary cinema:

N9: “Affect, Collectivity, Contemporary Cinema.”

Chair: Claudia Breger (Indiana University)

Shane Denson (Duke University), “Post-Cinematic Affect, Collectivity, and Environmental Agency”

Anders Bergstrom (Wilfrid Laurier University), “On Dissipation: The Loss of the Movie Theatre as Affective Site in “Goodbye, Dragon Inn””

Jecheol Park (National University of Singapore), “A Counter-neoliberal Collective to Come: Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing”

Claudia Breger (Indiana University), “The Epic Aesthetics of Ruptured Collectivity in Fatih Akın’s “The Cut” (2014)”

Then, on Sunday, April 3, 2016 11:00AM-12:45PM, I will be responding to panel T19 on “post-cinematic control”:

T19: “Post-Cinematic Control”

Chair: Lisa Akervall (Bauhaus-University Weimar)

Respondent: Shane Denson (Duke University)

Lisa Akervall (Bauhaus-University Weimar), “The Truth of Auto-Tune: Voice Modulations in Post-Cinematic Media-Ecologies”

Viviana Lipuma (North Carolina State University), “Semiocapitalism: the production of signs as the production of desire in the media”

Gregory Flaxman (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), “Left of Conspiracy”

You can view the complete conference program here (opens as a PDF).

And here, finally, is the abstract for my paper:

Post-Cinematic Affect, Collectivity, and Environmental Agency

Shane Denson (Duke University)

The computational and broadly post-cinematic media at the heart of contemporary moving images are involved in a massive transformation of human agents’ phenomenological relations to the world. Digital imagery has long been held accountable for effacing the indexicality of cinema’s photographic base, while post-cinematic images more generally might be thought in terms of their “discorrelation” from viewing subjects. There is, however, a flip-side to these negative determinations: if the microtemporal and subperceptual operations of post-cinematic media bypass and hence displace subjective perception, they also serve to expand the domain and the material efficacy of sub- or supra-personal affect. What this amounts to, ultimately, is a radical empowerment of the nonhuman environment, the agency of which becomes tangible in sites and forms ranging from the Fitbit to “big data” and the computational modeling of climate change.

Drawing on Steven Shaviro’s account of post-cinematic affect, and supplementing it with Mark B. N. Hansen’s recent work on the “feed-forward” mechanisms by which biofeedback and environmental sensors serve to expand worldly agency, this presentation argues that new forms of collectivity may become thinkable in the spaces opened up by post-cinematic media. In the reconfiguration of agency, that is, by which digital media bypass the individual and transfer its powers to perceive and to act onto the nonhuman environment, the “dividuality” that Deleuze saw as a correlate of the control society may open onto a more positive conception of collective power. Maurizio Lazzarato’s provocative Bergsonist-Marxist “video philosophy” will serve as a catalyst for conceptualizing this new collectivity and its relation to moving-image media, while the work of independent filmmaker Shane Carruth (Primer [2004], Upstream Color [2013]) will help to focus the interplay among post-cinematic affect, environmental agency, and the mediation of collectivity in the micro- and macrotemporal intervals of contemporary media.

Bibliography:

Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October 59 (1992): 3-7.

Denson, Shane. “Crazy Cameras, Discorrelated Images, and the Post-Perceptual Mediation of Post-Cinematic Affect.” Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film. Eds. Shane Denson and Julia Leyda. Sussex: REFRAME Books, forthcoming 2015.

Hansen, Mark B. N. Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2014.

Lazzarato, Maurizio. Videophilosophie: Zeitwahrnehmung im Postfordismus. Berlin: b_books, 2002.

Shaviro, Steven. Post-Cinematic Affect. Winchester: Zero Books, 2010.

Don’t Look Now: Paradoxes of Suture

An exploration of suture, space, and vision in Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), this video essay also experiments with close and distant modes of viewing. Made in Apple Keynote, screen recording done with ScreenFlow, and just a few finishing touches added with Final Cut Pro.

UPDATE: See here for an interactive version and for some more general reflections on interactivity and the “video essay.”

Coming Soon: after.video

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I just saw the official announcement for this exciting project, which I’m proud to be a part of (with a collaborative piece I made with Karin Denson).

after.video, Volume 1: Assemblages is a “video book” — a paperback book and video stored on a Raspberry Pi computer packaged in a VHS case. It will also be available as online video and book PDF download.

Edited by Oliver Lerone Schultz, Adnan Hadzi, Pablo de Soto, and Laila Shereen Sakr (VJ Um Amel), it will be published this year (2016) by Open Humanities Press.

The piece I developed with Karin is a theory/practice hybrid called “Scannable Images: Materialities of Post-Cinema after Video.” It involves digital video, databending/datamoshing, generative text, animated gifs, and augmented reality components, in addition to several paintings in acrylic (not included in the video book).

Here’s some more info about the book from the OpenMute Press site:

Theorising a World of Video

after.video realizes the world through moving images and reassembles theory after video. Extending the formats of ‘theory’, it reflects a new situation in which world and video have grown together.

This is an edited collection of assembled and annotated video essays living in two instantiations: an online version – located on the web at http://after.video/assemblages, and an offline version – stored on a server inside a VHS (Video Home System) case. This is both a digital and analog object: manifested, in a scholarly gesture, as a ‘video book’.

We hope that different tribes — from DIY hackercamps and medialabs, to unsatisfied academic visionaries, avantgarde-mesh-videographers and independent media collectives, even iTV and home-cinema addicted sofasurfers — will cherish this contribution to an ever more fragmented, ever more colorful spectrum of video-culture, consumption and appropriation…

Table of Contents

Control Societies 
Peter Woodbridge + Gary Hall + Clare Birchall
Scannable images: materialities of Post-Cinema after Video 
Karin + Shane Denson
Isistanbul 
Serhat Köksal
The Crying Selfie
Rózsa Zita Farkas
Guided Meditation 
Deborah Ligotrio
Contingent Feminist Tacticks for Working with Machines 
Lucia Egaña Rojas
Capturing the Ephemeral and Contestational 
Eric Kiuitenberg
Surveillance Assemblies 
Adnan Hadzi
You Spin me Round – Full Circle 
Andreas Treske

Editorial Collective

Oliver Lerone Schultz
Adnan Hadzi
Pablo de Soto
Laila Shereen Sakr (VJ Um Amel)

Tech Team

Jacob Friedman – Open Hypervideo Programmer
Anton Galanopoulos – Micro-Computer Programmer

Producers

Adnan Hadzi – OHP Managing Producer
Jacob Friedman – OHV Format Development & Interface Design
Joscha Jäger – OHV Format Development & Interface Design
Oliver Lerone Schultz – Coordination CDC, Video Vortex #9, OHP

Cover artwork and booklet design: Jacob Friedman
Copyright: the authors
Licence: after.video is dual licensed under the terms of the MIT license and the GPL3
http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-3.0.html
Language: English
Assembly On-demand
OpenMute Press

Acknowledgements

Co-Initiated + Funded by

Art + Civic Media as part of Centre for Digital Cultures @ Leuphana University.
Art + Civic Media was funded through Innovation Incubator, a major EU project financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the federal state of Lower Saxony.

Thanks to

Joscha Jaeger – Open Hypervideo (and making this an open licensed capsule!)
Timon Beyes – Centre for Digital Cultures, Lüneburg
Mathias Fuchs – Centre for Digital Cultures, Lüneburg
Gary Hall – School of Art and Design, Coventry University
Simon Worthington – OpenMute

http://www.metamute.org/shop/openmute-press/after.video