My book Technologies of History: Visual Media, and the Eccentricity of the Past has just been published by Dartmouth Press and is due for release in March 2011. The book examines alternative forms of visual history as constructed through film, television and digital media over the past 30 years. Integrating theory, historical research and textual criticism, I explore issues of cultural memory, textuality and the impact of digital technologies on our understanding of the past, focusing on works that challenge the conventions and forms of traditional historiography. My goal is to broadly reconsider the range of practices that should be regarded as visual history, drawing special attention to voices and forms of practice that have been left out of mainstream historical discourse. Overall, I argue that the primary aspirations of visual history need not be limited to the production of illusionist narratives but may include the creation of new critical contexts in which viewers simultaneously interrogate the past and rethink the entangled relations of history, memory and media. As an intervention in prevailing discourses of media and history, my aim is to rethink our fundamental relationship to history in response to a diverse and rapidly evolving media landscape that includes online video, science fiction, games and digital networks.
In conjunction with the book, I have also created a rich-media interactive history project of the same title that expands upon a single case study drawn from the book. This project allows for an in-depth exploration of the extraordinary diverse ways the John F. Kennedy assassination has been mediated and reinterpreted, ranging from the Zapruder footage to machinima videos captured from the game JFK Reloaded. For me, these two projects represents an ideal conjunction of scholarly modes, with the book allowing for the in-depth development of a more or less conventional academic argument in linear form. However, the project examines a genuinely diverse range of media texts, so that no reader could reasonably be expected to be familiar with all of the objects under examination. By creating a digital companion to the written text, I was able to perform a different kind of textual analysis, not simply through illustration of examples but by juxtaposing different threads of the argument with related media clips. The experience of navigating this database of critical and mediated works allows the user to experience the argument from multiple perspectives and in varying degrees of specificity.
This article maps two divergent trajectories within a narrowly defined sphere of short-form, time-based digital media created between 1995 and 2005. These works are considered in relation to the historical avant-garde – particularly the Structural film movement of the 1960s and 70s – and analyzed as responses to a range of cultural concerns specific to the digital age. The analysis identifies movement toward two terminal points: first, a mode of remix-based montage inspired by open source programming communities and peer-to-peer networks; and second, the emergence of a mode of imaging termed the “digital analogue”, which foregrounds the material basis of digital production.
Published in Digital Humanities Quarterly vol 1, no 2 Summer 2007
Download “Aporias of the Digital Avant-Garde”
The Visible Evidence documentary conference continues at USC through the weekend with several notable events in addition to an impressive, three-track array of panels and presentations devoted to all things documentary. I am especially excited about the presentation by filmmaker James Benning on Saturday night from 8:00 to 10:00PM in SCA 108. Billed as a “Multimedia Presentation” by Benning, who is best known for his uniquely rigorous body of landscape-focused structural films, the artist will be talking about his most recent non-film project “Milwaukee to Lincoln, MT,” which involved reconstructing the cabin built by Henry David Thoreau on Walden Pond and the cabin occupied by Theodore Kaczynski (aka the Unabomber) in the woods of Montana.
Known for his eclectic interests and fascination with notorious figures from American history (one of Benning’s early films mined the personal diaries of Arthur Bremer, Nixon’s would-be assassin who went on to shoot Alabama Governor George Wallace in 1972), Benning is one of the few artists who could pull off such a perverse, yet striking, juxtaposition without trivializing the subject through postmodern irony-mongering. Whatever happens when Benning goes on stage in SCA 108 tomorrow night, I promise you will not want to miss it.
An article examining the movement toward new storytelling sensibilities in interactive artwork at the intersection of cinema, video games, and networked computing
With the flick of a mouse, we glide effortlessly down the gloomy corridors of Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel, floating past cavernous ballrooms and windows overlooking elegant gardens and swimming pools. Around each corner and behind each door, ghostly figures replay events from a past that is at once real and imagined. A Kennedy died here, along with countless villains and plots of Hollywood noir. The number of possible paths through this story space seems limitless. Even familiar rooms tell different stories with each visit and earthquakes periodically rumble through the dilapidated building, triggering a barrage of images and hurling us into new spaces and times. This is the world of Pat O’Neill’s Tracing the Decay of Fiction, a DVD-ROM made in collaboration with the Labyrinth Project at USC’s Annenberg Center for Communication, which for the past five years has been a key player in the loose global network of digital artists and designers charting new territories in the field of interactive database narrative.
Published in Res Magazine Jan/Feb 2004
A profile of industry iconoclast and experimental film legend Pat O’Neill
A new film by Pat O’Neill is to the experimental film world what a planetary alignment is to astrophysicists, a rare and momentous event, promising a glimpse into the workings of laws of light and movement – perhaps even a new way of seeing the world. For O’Neill to complete two projects at once – a 35mm film The Decay of Fiction and a DVD ROM Tracing the Decay of Fiction – is more like a supernova colliding with a black hole: the convergence of two extraordinary phenomena in a single moment – a nearly inconceivable occurrence from a man who thinks nothing of waiting an entire year to photograph a ray of sunlight shining through a window at a particular angle.
Published in Release Print September 2002
Seeing Is Believing: Unseen Cinema unearths a new history of the early American avant-garde.
The most interesting histories are those that dispute prevailing narratives or reclaim a past that is in danger of being lost. Indeed, the essence of historiography is discursive and cultural struggle – the preservation, revision and contestation of a consequential past – not the accumulation of polite facts in academic volumes. Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1893-1941, a joint project of Anthology Film Archives and the Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt, offers one such undertaking. Curated by Bruce Posner, the travelling program of films – a staggering 22 hours’ worth – is a rare attempt at both historical revision and preservation, and if things go well, one that is likely to provoke both controversy and interest in this long-neglected corner of film history.
Published in The Independent July 2001
Download Seeing is Believing: Unseen Cinema
Profiles of alternative media makers in Los Angeles including William Jones, Erika Suderberg, Tran T. Kim-Trang, Jesse Lerner and Ming-Yuen S. Ma
An often-overlooked fact about Los Angeles is that the city is home to some of the most diverse and cutting edge experimental media production in the world. The scene has a long history stretching back to the 1920s, but it also has a very current presence, thanks to the work of numerous artists whose work brings together a commitment to theoretical sophistication, stylistic innovation, and political engagement. Many of these artists express their faith in the power of alternative media by performing in multiple capacities, making films, videos or multimedia projects while also teaching, writing, and curating. Among these artists are William Jones, Erika Suderberg, Tran T. Kim-Trang, Jesse Lerner and Ming-Yuen S. Ma. For these makers, “independence” is a necessity rather than a marketing strategy – they do not aspire to three-picture deals with the latest mega-merged entertainment industry giant or even a distribution deal with Miramax. Although their work is widely disparate both formally and thematically, these artists together constitute a strong, smart, and much needed alternative media presence in a city that, thanks to diminished arts funding, has almost no remaining infrastructure to support them.
Published in The Independent, March 2000
A review of Jan-Christopher Horak’s book Making Images Move
In histories of cinema, photography is often figured as a mere technological stepping stone, a necessary but primitive moment in the inexorable progression toward increasingly realistic forms of representation. According to this narrative, the prodigious time-motion experiments of Muybridge and Marey seem quaintly tragic in their failure to achieve an illusion of movement which is today taken for granted. But, as some of the earliest commentators on cinema noted, it was photography, not film, which provided rare glimpses into worlds that are invisible to the naked eye. Movies, as Warhol reminded us, do little more than slavishly recreate the world as we see it, replete with all its artifice and tedium. While some photographers have claimed to realize greater flexibility in the transition from still to moving images, others have sustained a complex and productive engagement with the two. Unfortunately, the creative interrelationship of film and photography has been largely neglected by critics of both media. With a detailed examination of eight photographer/filmmakers, Jan-Christopher Horak’s new book, Making Images Move, offers an intelligent and much-needed contribution to this gap in contemporary scholarship.
Published in Film Quarterly Summer 1999
A review of Wheeler Winston Dixon’s The Exploding Eye: A Re-visionary History of 1960s American Experimental Cinema
Wheeler Winston Dixon’s goal in The Exploding Eye: A Revisionary History of 1960s American Experimental Cinema is a noble one. In a brief introduction, Dixon outlines his desire for a “work of recovery and regeneration” that will call attention to “those filmmakers whose works have escaped into the phantom zone of the absent signifier.” Himself an experimental filmmaker, critic, and first-hand participant in the New York alternative film scene of the 1960s, Dixon seems like a logical person to undertake such a revision, to challenge existing canons and construct a new history that hews close to the intentions, words, and films of the innumerable unsung artists of this extraordinarily fertile period in experimental cinema. Unfortunately, while Dixon’s book may serve as a useful handbook on selected filmmakers who have slipped through the cracks of history, it fails to address any of the most compelling questions about how and why such cracks and canons are formed and ultimately does not live up to either its historical promise or revisionist aspirations. Published in Film Quarterly Summer 1999
The Blur + Sharpen Screening series presents: “Time Out of Place”
Thursday, February 26 at 8:00pm in SCA 108
The city becomes both a focal point and the backdrop for a series of videos made over the last decade that reflect a fascination with urban space, movement, mapping and the possibility of art. Highlights include Thomson & Craighead’s “desktop documentary” titled Flat Earth, Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt’s Time Out of Place, which attempts to portray the city’s past, present and future simultaneously, and the usual array of music videos and design shorts.
The Getty Museum is currently hosting “California Video,” a survey of 40 years of video art made in California. To complement this show, the IML’s Anne Bray has curated a stellar program of cutting edge videos from 1980 forward called “Hotbed: Video Cultivation Beside the Getty Gardens”; it will feature 20 videos projected outside on the walls of the Getty in a spectacular and unprecedented display this Friday, May 9 (7:00 – 9:00 p.m.). The show continues on Saturday, but this conflicts with the IMD thesis show opening, so plan accordingly!
Thanks, Peter, for this moment of zen. It has indeed been a long time since I sat and did nothing and even longer since I sat and watched someone else doing nothing – probably since Andy Warhol’s Eat, a 39 minute film of artist Robert Indiana eating a single mushroom. As with your video, about half way into the film, Indiana’s cat jumps onto the couch where he is sitting, curls around the artist’s neck for a few reels, then moves on. Eliding the important differences between them, the key to durational film and video is settling into a work’s internal temporal logic. When the cat enters frame after 15 minutes of Eat, it is as ecstatic as any cinematic experience I have ever had. Something similar happens in James Benning’s Sogobi when the helicopter appears after 20 minutes of static shots of unpopulated wilderness. Without 20 minutes of minimalism preceding it, the shot loses its power. Sadly, the days of durational film and video are numbered if not gone altogether – a Google search for Eat returns a YouTube video of a single, decontextualized reel with the cat, which seems to me to be missing the point entirely. And so, in the spirit of perversity, I offer the following remix of your excellent video for those who will not rise to your challenge, distilled to one minute, with a perky score by Bongwater, and converted for handy viewing on the iPod. How’s that for missing the point?