“We live in hell,” said Pasolini in an interview recorded several hours before his death. We can take it in the Flusserian sense of world and life in it turning into hell as soon as the meaning of symbols surrounding us become non-transparent, and symbols are nothing more than ‘themselves’. In a totalitarian mass society infused with constant chatting, communication transforms into its opposite and instead of connecting us to others and giving life a meaning, it leads to utter alienation and meaninglessness of life. Vilém Flusser believed this post-historical crisis could be overcome only by changing our communication structure. Beyond technocratic totalitarianism of depoliticised consumption, techno-imagination can aid in discerning the establishment of democracy in a new sense of the word. Flusser defines techno-imagination as “an ability to make images from concepts and to subsequently decode these images as symbols of concepts. This new ability was what the students in May 1968 had in mind when they spoke about l’imagination au pouvoir, and if it wasn’t in their mind, it should have been.”
Traditional differentiation between science, politics and art is pointless for techno-imagination as these three categories are, in the historical sense, overcome. Views are multiplied and available to others. People become increasingly attached to amphitheatrical discourses that stereotypically programme them and the society lacks real dialogue creating new information. To change the communication structure, we need to learn how to use codes properly. However, we take part in a game of shadows which hides from us the crisis we live in and we do it to avoid responsibility, i.e. dialogue, creative communication.
Flusser asks the following question: “How to form the relation between science and art (a knowledge and an experience of the concrete) if the objectivity of science is considered a sort of subjectivity (i.e. if science is taken as an art form), and the subjectivity of art as a sort of objectivity (art as a form of science)?” A quest for the truth is no longer a revelatory journey, but rather an attempt to harmonise with others in order to be able to coexist with them in the world – truth is no longer objectivity, but rather intersubjectivity. Equivalence of all the views is not a lack of values or indifference to all the views – but awareness of it is still far from the capability to live accordingly.
Today’s communication structure offers unlimited possibilities to create new human relationships, new people and a new society, but these potentials remain utopian. This refers to the question of how to remove the fatal barrier that divides elite culture from mass culture. The tree discourse is characterised by hermetical and specialist codification (art has been increasingly leaning towards this discourse, specific for science and technology), whereas the amphitheatrical discourse (specific for television) contains only a small number of simple and uniform codes, bordering on universality – these codes can be coded by anyone anytime. Senders are immortal and can send their messages forever (television) – therefore receivers no longer need to be turned into future senders – this communication perfection (synchronisation of broadcasting and public opinion) in certain contexts becomes totalitarianism, i.e. totalitarian depoliticisation in seeming general participation. According to Flusser, it was the video artists who first became aware of this danger and tried to oppose it. They want to separate the video tape and monitor from totalitarian devices and their operators, and battle mass culture with counterculture. Flusser believes that in doing so they fail, primarily because they are not familiar with the nature of the medium and neglect its exceptionally dialogical character. Video is a great danger when used in a transmitting device, but it also comes with a small possibility for a new dialogical form, the liberation that brings meaning.
On the other hand, cinema, this “somewhat ancient art stands at the crossroads between photography and video, permanently surrounded by new forces that keep transforming it.” If the analysis of cinema has become “an art without a future, an impossible marriage between word and image, as Bellour claims, it turns into studying a magic, a collective experience of enchantment and disappointment.” Like Flusser in the eighties, Bellour also sees deceptive hope in video art as a trace of art’s utopia in a specific form of the end of art as a utopia. Bellour wrote a collection of essays Between-the-Images at the moment of the very first encounters between the analogue and the digital at the intersection of photography, film and video. Today, at the time of general dominance of digital images, this essay is an attempt to define the experience of entering the second age of image, which started with the video. The space of these transformations is embodied by an image-in-between, floating between two photograms, two screens, two densities of matter, as well as two speeds. From this moment on, images arrive to us this way, in a space in which one needs to determine which images are real. An image-in-between is the only reality of the world. Albeit virtual and abstract, the image’s reality as a possible world. Video images still fascinate the way film and photographs no longer could. New devices are always dangerous (their operation is impossible to predict) and could be diverted away from their original intention (hence, they are potentially revolutionary).
In the essay Video Utopia, originally published in 1986 in a special edition of Cahiers du Cinema, Bellour analyses video art through the works of Bill Viola, Doug Hall and Antoni Muntadas as one of the most prominent signs of the post-modernism of resistance.
In his work Reverse Television (1982), Bill Viola filmed citizens of Boston (altogether 44 persons age 16 to 93) watching television in their living rooms. The point was not only in making the observer visible and make a counter-shot of an omnipresent shot, but also the silence that the infuses the shot per se. These portrayals should have appeared in complete silence without any announcement or localisation on a public channel, hour upon hour over a few weeks between programmes, during the slots originally meant for advertising, without any clues that might hint to the observers what this was all about. However, these portrayals were instead broadcasted over two weeks, five times a day, in a 30 seconds’ duration, signed with the artist’s name.
However, the project was in the end only half-realised, just like a similar project by the Spaniard Muntadas, whose Media Ecology Ads (1982) consist of three sequences, three fictional miniatures about the perception of time, cultural signs and the language of commercials that denominates them and marks its territory. These are three critical reflections of speed, narration and framing, inherent to the transmission of moving images. Just like Viola, Muntadas wanted his Media Ecology Ads to take the place reserved for commercials on a public channel, or at least to interfere with them. Instead, his tape, broadcasted several times, in California, Spain, US, was always run as part of programmes dedicated exclusively to video art or image.
Nevertheless, there are two ways to resist the flow: by infiltrating inside television as an institution of the flow, or remain outside. To most video artists, installation is this external place of resistance introducing a physical and virtual space in which the observer, according to their own will, re-adapts the concepts intersecting the institution creating an interaction which is as critical as it is imaginary.
Flusser wrote about how in the techno-imaginary world cinema indeed plays a role similar to the one the church played in the imaginary world of the Middle Ages – it is a place of concentration for receiving a transcendental message and one of the few refuges from the myriad of colourful attacks on our senses. The manner of decoding films reminds of the manner of decoding liturgies in the Middle Ages. Film is the leading art not because of content or form, but because one is still able to focus on it! Today, when so many cinemas are closing down and only multiplexes remain, like feelies from Huxley’s Brave New World, video artists, interestingly, are trying to recreate cinematic conditions in galleries and museums, such as watching in darkened rooms and rediscovering the qualities of silence. To Godard, this is the greatest value of film as art opposing television.
In its early days video art opposed television, however, it was often mistaken for it. Television aims to create a homogeneous time which doesn’t allow (or barely allows) difference. Therefore, film resists television even when it is subordinate to it, it rearranges the sequence of events and derails time – every meaning and the entire time become the present and for the first time they can be manipulated without taking part in them. However, television demonstrates its power over film by becoming a universal language that film used to be considered and because of which in its beginnings (e.g. in its idealist-revolutionary Soviet version) it dreamed of becoming a language. This is why television is more like a language than film ever was. Through its correlation with video art at a time which is on bad terms with utopia it can become one of the last shelters of utopia – and contradictory utopias.
Filmmakers open to new principles of using images, which makes it possible for the observers to form a critical view on their production, distribution or use. Film and video have become the most represented contemporary art disciplines, and works combining the expressive possibilities of art film, film essay and openness to experiment are created. However, a question is raised in what manner and to what extent these works generate new possibilities for representation and change the meanings of the world we live in, expand our senses and transform symbolical relation? Or, as Flusser put it: “how do we, by way of these codes, create and transfer quite differently designed information and thus give life a new meaning?” If socially integrated art is a thing of the past, what can an ‘almost art’ (as Mallarmé put it), a postmodernism of resistance bring?
Film imbued its century like nothing else, however very early on it got a close enemy whose destiny could not quite be discerned from film’s – television. Bellour in his introduction to the aforementioned 2002 essay collection claims that two new enemies should be added to the list – a computer and a museum, the latter being more respectable but also more devious. Here film indeed becomes just art and transforms into unusual, constantly renewed dispositions, disappearing to itself and perpetually arising under other names.
But let us take a step back and reflect on Chris Marker’s documentary fictions in which techno-imagination unveils itself in full bloom. During the 1990s Marker embarks on an endeavour leading him to new technologies in order to explore their interaction with a historiographical and documentary intention. In his film essays about the 20th century (of which he claims should be erased), Marker intertwines realism with science fiction and poetics with politics. Opting for personal reminiscence instead of an objective presentation of history, Marker registers all the important political ups and downs from the first half of the 20th century to the end of the millennium, making a record of his meditations on the paradox of memory and manipulation of time. The essence of film codes is stretching linear codes to their limits and showing that linear time – the time of process and progress, narrative and calculation – is in fact a trompe l’oeuil. This is not a matter of a lack of interest in history – quite the contrary, only now can history be made – i.e. we can discern it and turn it into images (film is history-producing fiction). History means wrapping images into terms, and freedom doesn’t mean acting within time but rather giving a meaning to the act. The post-historical mentality which is particularly evident in films is anti-humanist because humanism is a historical ideology, which was bound to happen after losing faith in progress and historical freedom. Piling information in itself doesn’t lead to reading a history out of them. Memory should be created against the surplus of information, as well as against the lack – memory is a work of fiction. Marker’s documentary fictions resort to harmonies and disharmonies between narrative voices and series of images of changeable periods, sources and meanings. The power of word stemming from the numbness of the machine and objects unites with the power of editing, building a story and meaning by combining images, expanding of narrowing the possibility of their meaning and expression. Marker uses the video tool in a way similar to installation art (although he prefers calling it presentation) – image as an operation of connecting and eliminating is confirmed to the expense of the material shine of the realm of shadows. The shallowness of videographic space multiplies the levels of fiction and meaning and thus recalls every aporia about the end of art, as Ranciere once wrote for Level Five (1996).
Marker’s last feature film is set on the very boundary between the old and the new, between the film art we knew and which miraculously survived and something new slowly appearing and finding its place inside it, and whose crucial quality is essential loneliness. The real and the virtual become two sides of the same riddle, intertwining and reproducing each other. In the CD-ROM Immemory Marker claims that film has given everything it had to give and that it has to make room for something new. The death of film would constitute a moment of unification with all that is loved and lost, it would be merely an endless memory, which is an honourable destiny. Marker introduces two points of view – a desire for a cinema more attuned with cutting-edge technologies, but is nevertheless still cinema. The other point of view is surrendering to the logic of internet and endlessness of piling images and memories. Marker opts for the latter and opens a virtual museum of his photographs, films and installations called Second Life.
A documentary film by Victor Erice about Spanish painter Antonio López specifically focuses on this correlation between image, photography, film and video. In The Quince Tree Sun we follow the creative process of painting a quince tree planted by the painter in his own garden. This is a recurrent motif, to which he returns every autumn. López is trying to capture the rays of light through the leaves before the tree loses all the fruits and leaves, but at the same time he is interrupted by unannounced visits. The Quince Tree Sun becomes a dialogue between two arts – cinema and painting. The painter’s work is a solitary process, quite contrary to the director’s. The painter’s time is also different: he has his time and can use it without repercussions. To the director, however, time is closer to an industrial process. He is surrounded by people and doesn’t have the privilege of individual time. This is collective time, measured with money. Erice says he was aware that the presence of camera changed Antonio’s manner of work and his private experience of the tree he was painting. Although he tried to respect the painter-tree relationship as much as possible – apparently quite mysterious, which he tried to express at the end of the film – he felt the film crew had to interfere to some extent. That is why in the end he decided to show the film camera, his tool, and hinted that artificial light caused the fruits to rot.
The feeling of hopelessness left in its wake by the century that experienced the collapse of all utopias found its equivalent in the fate of film art. As Erice says, I feel the language of painting belongs to the dawn of our time and civilisation and film to its sunset. We tend to connect film with youthful image, but I believe it is just the opposite. Once I discussed this with Antonio. “Did you see,” I said, “how rapidly film grew old? Like a child who grew old too soon, in only a hundred years it covered a large space, for which other arts took centuries.” Antonio said something I will never forget: “But, you know, film was born when man was already very old.” Perhaps today, when art is no longer the food feeding the best part of humanity (as Picasso claimed), this is the best definition of film – an ancient art which grew old very quickly, on the road from a cinema to a museum, from a film tape to a video tape, from a tool of revolutions to the post-modernism of resistance. But Marker reminds us to enjoy the very act of making – the unreal reality opens up possibilities to play defying death and search for humanity to be able to survive the inhumanity of our time without looking the other way.
Dina Pokrajac is a film critic, curator, editor and translator based in Zagreb who has worked on a number of interdisciplinary projects combining film and critical theory. She majored in Journalism and Political Science at the Faculty of Political Science and is a PHD candidate at the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology of the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb. Since 2019 she is the programme coordinator and manager of Dokukino KIC - a unique cinema in the region, dedicated exclusively to documentary cinema. She is the film programme director of Subversive Festival and programme coordinator of Film Mutations: Festival of Invisible Cinema. She is the chief editor at Scarabeus libris and contributing editor at Bijeli val association and Jesenski i Turk publishing house. She also works as a translator, having translated Lewis Mumford's Art and Technics and Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners among others. She has regularly contributed essays, film reviews, reports and interviews in magazines (Hrvatski filmski ljetopis, Filmonaut, 15 dana, Zarez), radio-programmes (Filmoskop) and online publications (Dokumentarni.net, Desistfilm, Kulturpunkt.hr). Winner of the Vladimir Vuković Award for Best New Film Critic in 2017. She edited the Croatian editions of the following filmological books - Raymond Bellour: Between-the-Images; Duras/Godard: Dialogues; Edgar Morin: Cinema or the Imaginary Man; Jean Epstein: Intelligence of the Machine and others essays, Marie-José Mondzain: Can Images Kill?