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d>art 00: digital exceptions

Keith Gallasch

Once again dLux media arts has played a notable role in the Sydney Film Festival, displaying interactive digital works in its d>art00 Exhibition at Customs House, Circular Quay (several of the works are reviewed in Working the Screen, see below) and screenings in the Dendy Opera Quays cinema. Both events were well-attended. While the interactive works offered various levels of pleasure, depending on your patience and the availability of computers, and pretty much looked how you’d expect digital works to look, the films and videos were another matter altogether and provoked some intense discussion.

There was more than a hint from d>art00 Project Manager Susan Charlton in her preface to the program that there would be an issue here:

What should we now expect a digital artwork to look or sound like? Have digital technologies become so pervasive that they are almost invisible...There is no question that artists are increasingly taking up digital technologies to create their works. But how are they using them right now?

This theme of invisibility and its ramifications is developed by Mitchell Whitelaw in an extension of a paper (Working the Screen) he gave at the d>art00 forum in which he proposed an end to the use of terms like new media arts and digital arts. Peta Tait’s review of the new work at the Melbourne Planetarium by The Men Who Knew Too Much, Virtual Humanoids (Working the Screen, page 18), offers another perspective on the same theme.

The d>art00 screenings provoked 2 kinds of response. The first was acclaim, a response to the absence, pretty much, of conspicuous computer animation and pleasure in a return to avant-garde form—short bursts of serious, grainy, sometimes scratchy filmmaking, various discontinuities and ruptures and a shortage of Tropfest jokiness. The second was disappointment, surprise that this is where ditigal film and video are alleged to be going—backwards into the well-established conventions of Super 8 ‘experimentation.’ A dispassionate viewing could sympathise with both sides, weary of slick digital animation but too familar with the film language, but the selection was certainly curious and there was a pronounced formal retro feel in many of the films. The works that offered most appeared to exploit new technology more visibly, and that feeling was doubtless exacerbated by the unadventurousness of many of the others where the mere flicker of an idea or a formal gesture seemed to have been enough to warrant a screening. Anyway, who was I to know where the technology was showing through? Clearly though, the technology is available to make your video look like Super 8.

Some works started out with promise. How to become a Film Freak in 7 Easy Lessons (Germany, Harrald Schleicher, video 1999) offered vaguely interesting floating full motion ‘cut-outs’ (backgrounds casually deleted) of mostly famous film actors (Bogart and Swanson repeatedly) delivering lines from movies about movie-making. Soon it felt like not much more than a nostalgic pick-the-movie trivia game. It wasn’t as funny as it thought it was. Kerry Tribe’s The Audition Tapes (video, USA, 1998) promised more than it could deliver, like a side show to something more significant as actors auditioned to play members of the filmmakers’ family in a mock documentary. The director’s sometimes confusing offscreen instructions and the hint of a dark family secret offered a certain frisson. But what was it doing in d>art00? Jim Finn’s Sharambaba (video, USA, 1999) shifted from a conversation between a man and a woman (the sound as if fed backwards and against a rackety clicking, the framing unsteady, subtitles for the dialogue) to faded shots of dusty streets, perhaps from another time. Lots of layering, but adding up to little. A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing (Sam Easterson, USA, video 1999) has a camera attached to the head of a sheep. A bumpy run. The other sheep seem alarmed. Hardly a sheep’s point of view and certainly not an example of cultural relativity. A slight video that has won a lot of unwarranted attention.

There were more engaging works that seemed to be pushing the limits of film by way of having something to say. Little Echo Lost (Armagan Ballantyne, Australia, 35mm, 1999) was the only film with any visceral punch, offering a widescreen, vertiginous, Rosemary Laing-ish landscape, and a potent degree of visual subjectivity in the breath-taking moment when ‘we’ emerge from our little hole in the ground into Blue Mountains spectacle with a sonic whoosh. Doubtless some thought it a slick AFTRS product. The technically adroit lovehotel (Linda Wallace, video, Australia 2000), a commercial for an inscrutable, sun-glassed global citizen, Francesca (“suck my code, baby”) da Rimini, looked like it would be more at home on a computer screen and all the better for being manipulable—at least to get a better look and to attend properly to the gash girl’s texts (see Working the Screen, page 6). Michiel van Bakel’s Undertow (video, Netherlands, 1999), set in the columns beneath a freeway, intially appears to be a formal exercise, rearranging the columns by angles and various lenses. But a man is introduced, leaping into the air until he remains suspended between the columns, the camera circling him magically without interruption or edit. Of course Matrix did this kind of thing but without offering us the opportunity for a long, contemplative gaze. Auto-matic (Manu Gondeau, France, video, 1998) a brisk digitally animated anti-advertisment has its best moment early on in its 1’30 when a cut-out muscular young man coughs up a sleek motor vehicle, as if giving birth. Nought after that, unless you see flashes of “Static” and “Monomonia” as meaningful.

Somewhere between the traditions of the avant-garde and the new technical virtuosity (not that I know how she did it) is Festa Mobile (Moving Party; Valentina Coccetti, video, Italy, 1999), a visual feast, a bizarre animation with the key figure a bulbous black duck (an image from somewhere in modernist iconography) transforming into a mouse a la Mickey, a bear and an elephant and moving in and out of westerns, pornography and travelogues against a soundtrack shifting elegantly from romantic strings to jazz by composer Nunzi. Despite the lurching, earnest animation we know so well, there was a deftness of touch and a visual richness that underpinned this increasingly sinister reverie.

The d>art00 screenings were a very mixed bag. Whether they affirmed the curatorial thesis of the increasing invisibility of the digital is another matter (it would have been interesting to have more detailed technical program notes on each film—a future possibility?). While the truth of that invisibility is obvious in many respects (eg in action feature films) the argument does little justice to a different kind of distinctiveness, the hybrids emerging in places other than cinemas and screening rooms, like d>art00 in Customs House, in theatres and public places and events like Cyber Cultures. While it’s pleasing to see film festivals embrace ‘new media’, it does position such work as an adjunct to the movie experience (while doubtless promoting an interest in it). Why, with a few inviting exceptions, did d>art00 place itself firmly back in film tradition? What exactly is its curatorial rationale, or are we really at some defining moment where the old forms rule again and film is film, dance is dance, theatre is theatre?

dLux media arts, d>art00 screenings, film & video, Sydney Film Festival, Dendy Opera Quays cinema, June 20, 22

See Working the Screen page 6 for reviews of Rebecca Bryant’s TellTale, Linda Wallace’s lovehotel, Tobias Kazumichi Grimes’ Electronic Sound Remixer, Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starrs’ Dream Kitchen from the d>art00 Exhibition, Customs House, Circular Quay, Sydney. June 8 - July 2

RealTime issue #38 Aug-Sept 2000 pg. 25-

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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