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The fabrication of images is a matter of possession. To see something is to own it, to copy is to control. Intoxicating as that is, the discipline of "I-maging" is a Sysiphusian struggle to stay in step with the latest improvements in re-presentation. The beguiling smile of the Mona Lisa threatens the Christian Iconographers; Cinerama outperforms Panavision. And so possession is the operative word, not only in terms of possessing the subject, but also in the sense of having to possess the tools to create the image of the subject.
Now that we have video, the noble, celebrated act of pushing that boulder up the hill is a different kind of performance. As seen from our Hyper perspective, with the remote in Scan Mode, it morphs into a Chaplinesque farce at break-neck speed, or is it "Quicktime"? Few people would argue that the final resting place of our big rock is anywhere but on the desktop. Random Access soon will no longer be just a luxury, and making a movie will be just as easy as booting up your Mac or PC.
From there it is just a short journey to what has long been a tangential goal for the independent imagemaker the democratization of video. Romantics hypnotized by the hearth-like flicker and larger-than-life arena of film have stuck with their razor blades and optical printers; it's the ease and immediacy of video that has swelled the ranks of image makers. The computer has now arrived to further upset the balance of power on two well-publicized fronts access and interactivity.
The progression from desktop video to interactive multimedia is well illustrated by the case of the musician Todd Rundgren, who became a player in the image making camp back in 1991 with his Change Myself music video. It's now the stuff of legend how Todd hooked together something like ten NewTec Video Toasters to render animation, and thereby helped to advance the field of desktop video. Now on the interactive front comes Todd's No World Order, a Macintosh compatible "album" that allows users to do things like remix their own version of the music or color the tone of the basic musical components. But is it interactive? Click and drag all you want those components cannot be completely broken down. The music is Rundgren's, and at some point the user must settle for being a passive consumer. It all boils down to the usual limitation. As Rundgren himself puts it: "It's the content, stupid."
Out of all the buzzwords, acronyms, and abbreviations floating around in this field, only one has any real validity DIY do it yourself. Todd did it, and we can only consume it. In a conversation between two people, someone must always stop talking and listen. What's wrong with just listening to music? That is, if the music is good enough to listen to without some gimmicky accoutrement. It used to be a "joystick," now it's a "mouse."
Ironically, here are Rundgren and a handful of others being hailed as heroic pioneers in a field that promises to eliminate heroes. Someone needs to be reminded that the Cult of Personality is not Democracy. The Multimedia Superstar isn't about to call up tomorrow and ask you to collaborate with him on his next project, nor is he likely to continue to espouse "democratic" participation if he can't get publicity doing it. This is just a bit removed from "no world order."
If computers will not involve people more actively in the creation of the images they consume, computers might still increase access to the images by the number of people who do create them. Although the number of imagemakers has steadily increased, thanks to improvements in technology, distribution has not kept pace with production. The channels have pretty much been static art gallery, artspace, the odd TV broadcast. Cable television has extended the options but, like home video, it has never approached the huge audiences guaranteed for big screen assembly line spectacles. Recently the Independent Community has been given notice that this disparity might be rectified. It's still a lot of talk, competing systems, and proposed legislation, but an overriding vision of the future is one where distributing a video will be just like sending email, courtesy the Fiber Optic Network, left turn at the Digital Highway.
Just like email! I can picture it now: the Casual User, crawling out of bed blurry-eyed at Twelve PM and loging on to the Net, still in his underpants, slightly soiled maybe, and scratching himself while absorbing Your Latest Work (that is if he bothers to watch at all 100,000 titles is a lot of competition). With each succeeding step from church to art gallery to movie theater to living room images have been accorded increasingly less reverence. Along with Democratization comes that other "D" word Demystification. Familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt. Is this an attractive scenario? Movies are exhibited. Moviemaking is exhibitionism. And no exhibitionist who suffers through the initial fear of public exposure wants to have his or her private parts made sport of or worse, trivialized.
The voice of dissent here is palpable: "Communication! That is the goal, and that is what the Net will facilitate!" Which is the only justification needed for those who subscribe to the theory of information as redemption for which there is probably no greater support than the finding recently reported by some survey group that the more informed Americans were about the U.S. war in the Gulf, the less inclined they were to support it. But there is a subtle conceit at work here, that reality is finite and knowable. Who is to define what constitutes being "more informed"?
The other conceit lies in thinking it possible to separate information, in some pure, concentrated form, from the medium that delivers it. Repeat after me class: "The medium is . . ." (like Woody Allen, "I have Mr. McLuhan right here!") And while typical is the student who considers the lesson remedial, the subject academic, the conveyor belt of talking heads perpetrated by those acolytes of communication communicates otherwise. Interactive? Nonlinear? Television is that already. People don't watch TV, they surf TV, and linear communiqués are pulverized by the crashing waves into Burroughsian cut-ups. The common thread uniting the flotsam and jetsam is the grab bag of televisual codes into which each communicator dips his or her hand. With every broadcast, on every channel, it's the same as it ever was the head (talking) is the center of the universal body. Language is authority, image proof. Life is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. It is this "information" that comes across with equal or greater strength and clarity than any supposed "content" the form contains.
Admittedly, the form/content debate is as paradoxical as the one about the chicken and the egg, and arguably just as pointless. There remains then the claim made for this digital highway by the devotees of democracy. While intoxicating, it is hardly original. The same claim that it will usher in an age of liberating information exchange was made for television when it emerged, and look what happened there. The criticism most frequently levied against television is that it turns people into passive consumers, but that is a boneheaded simplification. Television is a medium through which people express their innate passivity. Otherwise, why isn't everybody in the world a couch potato?
The motive for usurping the means of image production from the elite is less a moral imperative than an exercise in Nietzschean ressentiment. The zeal with which these invaders want to tear down the castle walls is that of the uninvited who want to ruin the party for everyone. And ruin it they shall. If the ability to make and distribute video ever becomes as widely accessible as these front line soldiers hasten it to be, those same people will flee from it in droves. The avant garde no more wants image making to be accessible than the establishment. If that ever does happen, all the power will be drained from the medium, and the message. In other words, video will become obsolete, inevitably to be succeeded by a new medium, probably Virtual Reality.
VR a cute, cuddly abbreviation that belies its aura of awe and trepidation is the Black Magic to Multimedia's White. Both are Interactive. Both are undeveloped, more potential than actual media. But there the similarity ends. VR is less easily assimilated, which will no doubt in the long run count for its appeal to artists, but which for the meantime engenders anxiety.
On the surface, VR appears to be completely interactive, to the point of eroding the perception of it as a medium. There's no progression of events that must be passively absorbed, as with television or interactive video. VR, mimicking reality, has no more the sensation of a program than reality itself. You're just walking around, moving through a room, whatever. This absence of an obvious program is what makes VR so insidious. Of course there is a program. The user, after all, does not get to pick the environment with which to interact. At least, not if the companies who will market this new medium have their way, and the consumers. Having too many choices is what's wrong with reality. Why would you want your virtual reality to be the same? The field is wide open for whoever has the money to market VR to advance their ideology. Wanna bet it's conservative?
While there might be good reason to oppose Virtual Reality, it might be futile to stand in the way of something infused with all the inevitability of a boulder, or a wheel, rolling down a hill. Painting was once the cutting edge in VR and, although not completely outmoded by photography, it nevertheless was reduced to the level of status symbol, cultural icon, living room wall decoration, and cheap date. The Nineteenth Century Realists were completely out of a job, because anyone with a camera could now do what they were doing, and do it better. That "anyone can do it" is an epithet usually reserved for abstract painting, which uncoincidentally made its debut at about the same time as photography. It is also said that abstraction destroyed painting. But while the former condemnation is in fact true (that "anyone can do it" was the point, or one of them), the latter has always been wide of the mark. Abstraction didn't destroy painting, it was just the writing on the wall. A certain Marcel Duchamp read the writing way back when classic abstractions were still wet on the canvas, and got out of imagemaking altogether, with a series of works that announced art's "enclavization," increasing irrelevance to the masses, and alienation from its original function.
Anyone who has ever picked up a camera intuitively knows the truth about all paintings from Lascaux to MOMA. Images are tools designed to serve their makers. Only since society has grown exponentially has that relationship become mechanized and commodified, and have people become alienated from intuitive ritual. That is a relationship the Independent Imagemaker might never restore, but one can at least subvert the process that rests in other people's hands.
It may sound preposterous to declare video dead, and VR the new art form, but it is already happening. Peter D'Agostino is one artist who consistently has been on the cutting edge of new media. Having begun to work with video in 1971, D'Agostino, an internationally recognized artist and a professor at Temple University in Pennsylvania, unveiled Proposal for QUBE, a two way cable TV system, way back in 1978. Now after a string of interactive projects, the artist is developing Critical Virtual Reality, or (C)VR. Regarding VR as "a technological system suffering from an extreme case of military-industrial complex," D'Agostino envisions (C)VR as ?a metaphorical equivalent of CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), a form of first aid to a dying body.? It's a scenario not without precedent. Just as, say, Mondrian and Kandinsky did in painting, and Joyce and Burroughs in literature, so the avant garde in the medium of Virtual Reality will pit presentation against re-presentation, abstraction against mimesis. Although to many it would seem natural for VR to transport you somewhere else, the avant garde as always will try to make you cognizant of where you already are.
For a price, of course. Which is not to say there is much material gain available to Independents. Yet few can subsist without at least a crust of recognition or notoriety. Despite rapid advances in technology, the old-fashioned credit roll is not likely to disappear. If anything, the roll will replicate, like a virus, and spread itself over every frame, in the form of an unwavering declaration, seared into the bottom of the screen like a cattle ranchers brand, or an epitaph on a tombstone: "Produced by...." With unlimited access for sale on the Net, copyright will cease to have meaning, and the communicator who works with quaint old fashioned video will have to do something to ensure credit, if not cash. In a society where freedom is one of the highest ideals, the freedom of ownership is often the greatest expression of idealism. That and the freedom to hold up the mirror and capture existence within a frame, whatever the aspect ratio.
It is perhaps comforting to reflect that, a disorienting climate of change notwithstanding, some things remain constant. Welcome to your next battlefield, soldiers of the avant garde! This time take no prisoners.