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Fast Forward: Conversations with machines

From camera obscura to cybernetics: filmmaker Joost Rekveld outlines experimental cinema from its hidden past to a distant future.

By Joost Rekveld

Camera Obscura
In this essay I want to develop my thoughts about possible futures for what is now referred to as experimental cinema, inspired by some of the ideas behind expanded cinema. Experimental cinema is a marginal cinema, not in the sense that its purpose is to remain obscure forever, but in the sense that those filmmakers are called experimental who challenge the categories of mainstream cinema. These same artists often cross over from or into other disciplines, so in order not to lose ourselves in speculations concerning the future of everything, we will have to rewind until we find a starting point from which we can can try and extrapolate.

The most commonly chosen starting point is that all cinema started in 1895 when the brothers Lumière projected a film reel in front of a paying audience for the first time. For about a generation before and after this now mythical beginning, all cinema was experimental. This first screening was later picked as the beginning of cinema because it was the start of the industry as we still know it. Looking at the political and anti-capitalist motivation behind much experimental film work, it would be ironic to pick the first commercial screening as the point of departure for our speculations. Also, if we think about the future, we should not limit ourselves by sticking to the form mainstream cinema has taken over the last hundred years, certainly not at a moment in history when that form is rapidly changing and might dissolve altogether. For these reasons, I will not refer to celluloid or the ‘flat’ projection technologies currently replacing it.

A much less medium-dependent answer to the question of when cinema started is given by art historian Anne Hollander in her monumental book Moving Pictures1. She sees cinema as the continuation of a long tradition of visual storytelling in which the spectator is moved by optical means. She locates the beginning of that tradition in the fifteenth century Flemish School around painters such as Jan Van Eyck and Rogier Van Der Weyden, and traces its development through the history of painting, photography and various kinds of graphic arts. It is a tradition we breathe in by taking part in the visual culture around us. The future of this is in many ways already happening in television, games, on the Internet and in other places where images are used to involve an audience in a narrative. Hollander puts the kinds of storytelling that experimental cinema has always questioned and developed alternatives for at the centre of the cinema she so beautifully places in a larger context. Experimental cinema can also be a quest for new types of visual narration, but in experimental cinema, the maker’s hand is at least a part of the story being told. The spectator is made aware of the artificiality of what there is to be seen; the origin of the images is part of the work and the spectator is made to reflect on the relation between the moving image and him/herself. Those elements also have a tradition that is older than film and Anne Hollander explicitly excludes that tradition from the line she is tracing. We want to trace a line that is not primarily about storytelling.

If we think about a spectator who is confronted by an optical image and invited to reflect on its source, the most general model we can choose as a starting point is the camera obscura. Isolated mentions of the camera obscura have been found since around the fourth century BCE in the west and since about the same time in China. The first to correctly analyse it was Ibn al-Haytham in Cairo, a thousand years ago. He wrote the Kitab al-Manazir, a book of optics which is in many ways the first modern scientific publication. Ibn al-Haytham used the camera obscura to project images of artificial light sources and experimentally prove that light travels in straight lines. His book had a huge influence on optics in the west when an incomplete translation reached Europe around two centuries later. Also around that time, the Persian scientist Kamal Al-Din Al-Farisi wrote a commentary on the Kitab al-Manazir in which he observed the projection of passing clouds and of flying birds in directions opposite to their motion outside the camera.2 In the sixteenth century many proposals were put forward on how to use the camera obscura in theatrical settings to amaze an audience. These used lenses for the first time to increase the clarity of the image. These culminated in the descriptions that can be found in the second edition of the Magiae naturalis from 1589 by Neapolitan Giovanni Battista della Porta. About fifteen years later, Johannes Kepler discovered the similarity between the camera obscura and our eye.

As a model, the camera obscura captures three points I want to use as starting points for reflections on future developments. The first two become apparent from the double meaning of the word ‘camera’. On the one hand a camera obscura is a dark room in which spectators are confronted with a projected image that is located in the same space. The second and much more common meaning of the word, refers to a device that can capture images. The centre of these machines is still a small, dark room. It is not accessible to humans this time, but images of the world around it are recorded in it in some way, so that they can be looked at somewhere else. The third point is the fact that camera obscura presentations were mostly also demonstrations of its working principle; the artificiality of the image is part of the situation. The spectator is invited to be amazed by the image, but also by the way this image is formed and its relationship to reality. It is not only a medium for something else, but also an incentive to reflect on our relationship to images, our relationship to machines and the way we relate to the world.

The Cave
The camera obscura can be compared to what the American philosopher Daniel Dennett calls the ‘Cartesian Theatre’; a space in which images appear in a way that is similar to how mental images and experiences ‘appear’ in our consciousness3. This is a metaphor which works both ways: on the one hand, we can interpret a cinema space as such a mental theatre, while on the other, cinema is a model that helps us understand how our mind might work: our consciousness is akin to a spectator of the film presented to us by our senses, making all kinds of doubts possible about the intentions of the film operator. We are all captive in our private Platonic cave. A similar image of perception was formulated by René Descartes in 1641, about a generation after Kepler who had discovered that our eyes are like small cameras.

A recurrent filmmakers and audiovisual artists’ fantasy is to exploit this situation of control over the spectator. Over the years, many proposals have been made and experiments carried out to develop new kinds of images, projection methods and more ‘total’ stimuli including other senses such as smell and touch, with the idea of intensifying the effect on the viewer. In the history of mainstream cinema the addition of sound, colour and the use of panoramic devices such as surround sound and widescreen projection have been justified by the idea of enhancing the realism of the cinematic experience. When virtual reality became a cultural phenomenon in the nineties, many saw it as the next step in this development: an element of spatiality, added through stereo vision and interaction with a wider visual field. The logical conclusion and total control over the audience would be to feed the stimuli directly into the latters’ nervous system4.
In the history of experimental and expanded cinema, experiences that were more immersive were not motivated by a desire for more realism. In most cases, they were also not based on the desire to increase the impact on the audience, but on the desire to achieve the more active involvement of the latter5. Many of the historic expanded cinema projects are compositions for two or more projectors in which the focus is on the compositional opportunities of several film ‘voices’, analogous to musical voices. These films necessitate a conscious focussing of attention, so that each spectator has his or her own experience. Instead of being a passive receiver of stimuli, the spectator becomes an essential factor in shaping and completing a work that is partly left open. Many of the large scale audiovisual events of the art and technology movement in the sixties were very open in this sense and intended to explore a different web of connections between the work and the audience. Much more recent examples are the works Feed and Zee by the Austrian artist Kurt Hentschläger, which merely consists of fog, surround sound and finely tuned stroboscopic lights. Here the brain becomes the screen in a way that leaves the audience free to explore the ephemeral space that is generated somewhere between the work and the viewer.

When the Italian natural philosopher Athanasius Kircher described the camera obscura in his Ars Magna Lucis et Ombrae of 1646 (‘Great Art of Light and Shadow’), he did this in the context of other manifestations of nature as a painter. There is a great page where he combines an image of a camera obscura with the classical images of Natura Pictrix, such as fossils or other image-bearing stones that bore representations of animals, humans or saints. These were to some extent similar examples of how nature produces images without the hand of a human artist. The inventors of photography two centuries later were explicitly looking for a way to allow nature to paint itself without human intervention. The very first film spectators were as much impressed with the details in leaves and waves that were captured on film as they were with the scene as a whole.

Soon, especially in aerial and scientific photography, it became clear that the camera could produce many kinds of images that had never been seen before and which had the power to change our perspective on the world. One of the filmmakers who described this most eloquently was Dziga Vertov, who developed his concept of ‘Kino-Eye’ in the twenties. He compared the medium of cinema to a human eye, but praised all the aspects of the medium which made this mechanical eye more perfect to him than a human eye. In cinema, shots from various locations and times can be woven into a new whole and the camera can give us many visual experiences that would otherwise not be accessible to human spectators. This idea that cinema can provide a perspective we do not already have was an important motivation for many experimental filmmakers. Some of them, such as, for instance, Stan Brakhage or Jordan Belson viewed their filmmaking as a way to convey or even demonstrate a personal, human vision, often achieved by interfering with the standard way of capturing images. Others, like Michael Snow or Steina and Woody Vasulka, were more interested in the alienness of a non-human perspective.

These artists’ perspectives are very much a response to the camera as it existed in the twentieth century; a machine which was engineered to let nature paint pictures that resemble traditional paintings. Over the last twenty years, many very different and exciting methods have been developed to capture images, pushed by the demands of astronomy, robotics, the special effects industry, medical imaging and military imaging6. A lot of effort has gone into devising systems that can make three-dimensional models based on visual information. Many of these methods use curved mirrors or arrays of micro-lenses, similar to the faceted eyes of insects. As in holography, these can pick up information that is present in three-dimensional patterns of lightwaves, but lost when recorded with a normal lens. Similar principles enable the military to look through forests and heavy foliage.
The intelligent image processing methods behind these developments embody a model of perception that is very different to that embodied by the traditional camera. The latter is a passive receiver that responds the same in every situation. These new devices resemble more contemporary views of our own perceptual system in the sense that they are adaptive and active. They test hypotheses about the world rather than passively receiving images of it7. They often start from some kind of prior knowledge of what is to be seen, so that portions of multiple views can be combined into a single picture that contains more information. These techniques have hardly penetrated the art world yet and it is interesting to speculate on how artists could turn them into new ways of seeing.

A further step towards changing our perception is to create sensory interfaces that would make new interactions possible with the world around us. Such interfaces would change our world in a very direct way. There are many examples of the plasticity of our perceptual system: our senses can adapt to an incredible variety of situations. We can teach ourselves to perceive or do things that are very much outside the range of things that is reasonable to suppose humans should be capable of doing if you take our prehistoric situation as a starting point.
A telling example of this potential is the work of Paul Bach-y-Rita into sensory substitution. Around 1960, he started to investigate neural plasticity: the capacity of our nervous system to adapt itself to new situations and for instance rewire itself after serious brain damage. One of his lines of research was into the possibility of restoring blind people’s sight by training them to perceive images through their skin: a low-resolution video image was fed to a 40x40 matrix of vibrating pins which positioned to contact the back or the belly. After a period of accommodation, these test subjects could recognise objects, move through spaces or even catch a ball thrown at them. As a cyborg they were truly seeing, not through their blind eyes, but through their interface and their skin. Key to the success of these experiments was that the people involved could move around with their interfaces, so that their perceptions were always related to intentions, bodily movements and actions. Based on these experiments, it should be possible to design new senses.

Machina Speculatrix
In the previous paragraphs I have several times touched on the relationship between man and machine. The prevailing view of machines is that they are tools with a limited degree of autonomy. The most ancient tools, hand tools such as needles, knives or hammers, needed humans to both provide the energy to make them work and to direct their action. After the invention of the steam engine, human or animal energy could be replaced by heat or electricity, but humans were still needed to guide the activity of these machines. With the emergence of cybernetics, the first theories were developed on how machines could control themselves and attain a goal independent of direct, human control.

The flip side of the power of our mechanical servants is the nightmare that one day these tools will rise against us. This is a motive that can already be found in pre-industrial stories such as that of Frankenstein or the myth of the Golem. When industrialisation started to change patterns of work that had existed for a very long time, workers revolted against the machines and their owners that made them redundant. Just after the middle of the twentieth century, a common image of the computer was that of an artificial brain at the centre of a bureaucratic, totalitarian regime in which humans have become mere numbers. The current nightmare is that technological progress is beyond our control and will at some point produce a post-human species, more fit than we are. This would reduce humans to simply another stage in evolution, in retrospect similar to worms or monkeys. We are afraid that the slaves of our own making will one day revolt and become our masters.

These black visions show us the relationship between man and machine as seen from the perspective of the other, the machine. The way out of this double bind of both the exalted dream of the total human exploitation of the world and the nightmare of humanity subjugated by its slaves, is to develop a more balanced relationship. We should have conversations with our tools that consist of more than commands issued by humans and machine responses in terms of percentages of target. In our culture so far we have two professions that, ideally, specialise in these kinds of dialogues with things: inventors and artists. Under ideal circumstances, both these groups are free, have no productivity targets to meet and are open to anything that can happen. In their work processes, an unexpected outcome is not immediately viewed as noise to be suppressed or a mistake to be corrected, but can be the start of a new development, as is the case in any meaningful conversation.

Artists are specialists in externalising an idea into something that can be looked at, to reflect on the result and take the next step from there. This only makes sense if there is a difference between practice and theory; if the material offers resistance to ideas so that in the work of art we can witness the artist’s learning process. The increasing autonomy of machines changes the results of this externalisation and the kinds of resistance; instead of making static objects, for the past fifty years, artists have been designing processes, environments or interaction loops. Experimental cinema was perhaps the first art form in which artists reflected on the cultural and human significance of perception as it is shaped and mediated by machines. By questioning these machines, they attempted to develop, demonstrate and question new ways of seeing.

Perhaps one day we will be able to make machines which are themselves capable of perception and of the externalisation of an idea. When that happens, it will be crucial for them and us for them to be able to set their own goals8. Such an autonomous machine perspective on the world can enlarge our own understanding only if it is independent. In that case we can explore the world in a dialogue with our machines which will then be able to tell us something we did not know already.

Humans are the product of evolution, which is a process that is sometimes gradual and sometimes takes sudden leaps and bounds. It is generally acceptable to start talking about humans and stop talking about primates at the point when the right conditions for the development and use of tools emerge9. Machines can be our slaves and might be our masters, but more importantly, it is through our machines that we define who we are.

Joost Rekveld (1970) has been making abstract films and light installations for about twenty years, originally starting out on the basis of the idea of visual music for the eye. He has makes most of his animated films using optical and mechanical set ups, using the computer as a controller and composition machine in order to orchestrate the precise movements of optical components. His installations developed from the tools he developed to make his films, often inspired by the less frequented byways in the history of science and technology. His work so far has dealt with various forms of scanning or with concepts related to the early history of optics and perspective. His interest in the spatial aspects of light triggered a shift away from the screen, towards more architectural and theatrical work. At the moment he is increasingly implicated in activities that resemble cybernetics, artificial life and robotic architecture.
His films have been shown worldwide at a broad range of festivals and venues for experimental, animated or otherwise short films. He has collaborated on many theatre projects, often with dance group Emio Greco | PC or music theatre ensemble De Veenfabriek. He has put together numerous programmes on the history of abstract animation and light art, culminating in the 9th edition of Sonic Acts: Sonic Light 2003. In 2004, he curated ‘4D in the Filmmuseum’ a large exhibition, a series of screenings and lectures for the Dutch Filmmuseum. He is currently the head of the ArtScience Interfaculty of the Royal Conservatoire and the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague.

1. Anne Hollander, ‘Moving Pictures’, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1986.
2. Abdelhamid I. Sabra, ‘Alhazen’s Optics in Europe: Some Notes on What It Said and What It Did Not Say’, in Wolfgang Lefèvre (ed.), ‘Inside the Camera Obscura – Optics and Art under the Spell of the Projected Image’, preprint, Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftgeschichte, Berlin, 2007.
3. Daniel Dennett, ‘Consciousness Explained’, Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 1991.
4. This idea was the basis for a 1983 film by Douglas Trumbull called Brainstorm. It is also one the visions mapped out in Peter Weibel, ‘The Intelligent Image: Neurocinema or Quantum Cinema ?’, in Jeffrey Shaw, Peter Weibel (ed.), ‘Future Cinema, The Cinematic Imaginary After Film’, MIT press, Cambridge, 2003.
5. Gene Youngblood, ‘Expanded Cinema’, Studio Vista, London, 1970.
6. An informal overview of these developments can be found in Patrick L.Barry, ‘Pictures Posing Questions, The next steps in photography could blur reality’, in Science News, Vol. 171, No. 14, april 7, 2007, p 216.
7. A great introduction in these more recent ideas about perception is Alva Noë, Evan Thompson (ed.), ‘Vision and Mind, Selected Readings in the Philosophy of Perception’, MIT press, Cambridge, 2002.
8. Joost Rekveld, ‘The Mechanization of the Magical Sign’, in Boris Debackere, Arie Altena (ed.), ‘The Cinematic Experience’, Sonic Acts Press, Amsterdam, 2008.
9. André Leroi-Gourhan, ‘Le geste et la parole’, Albin Michel, Paris, 1964.
Artist - Title (2009)
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