Film: Unfamiliar, Instability
by Beauchamp Art
In Unfamiliar, Instability I exploited stabilising algorithms to produce a hyper-real motion image, and along with time-stretching, re-filming, the moiré effect to create a unreal aesthetic to otherwise benign footage of a inactive face. Thereby exploiting editing technologies’ limitations to create a sense of digital uncanny, and unfamiliarity; an alienation to one’s own form mis-represented.
The film was created by holding a camera at arms length, aiming it directly at the cameraman, then moving it sporadically around my face, keeping the distance relatively constant, but tilting it left to right, rotating it slightly, and moving myself around, parallel to the camera, against a white ceiling, with a strong light source coming from the top of the frame, so that the position of the face stayed relatively constant, but obviously modulated from a static camera position. I tried this multiple times, with different directions of light and intensities of movement.
However, once the film was imported into Final Cut, the version selected featured a moderate amount of movement, interjected with some stability, offsetting the shakiness without becoming too nauseously kinaesthetic. I also used one of clips with a lower level of exposure that meant that there was mostly darkness around the eye sockets, making the figure appear even less familiar; more archetypal of a sinister character; if the viewer cannot see a face’s eyes, then they cannot see what they are looking at. Moreover, in the brighter shots the face seemed too nondescript, and the reflections in the eyes become more of a focal point than the other elements of the video.
My own face was used as it that which is more familiar to me, as anyone’s own face is in a world perforated by mirrors; whether the fragments of photographs scattered throughout one’s daily life, or the polished surfaces of darkened glass and still water, undisturbed by the ripple of a passing storm; such as this film echoes, for it is not dissimilar to a unsteady reflection in a tumultuous puddle, being gazed down upon by a passingly concerned individual, whom momentarily checks their own appearances and maintains their continuum of self-familiarity, without falling into the despair of dimorphic self-denial; an alienation from the form of one’s own being.
After cutting and cropping the video, the maximum amount of video stabilisation was applied to the footage. This meant that the algorithm of the program attempted to compensate for the deliberately shaky camera, making it jitter and blend unnaturally, and began to make the footage look artificial, as if a 3D model had been poorly rendered. After stretching the footage and applying the Optical Flow blending mode to elongate the distorted frames and extend the moments of digital uncanny in which the mechanics of the mode of representation reveal themselves, the film was then exported.
This was then displayed on the screen in which is was created, and filmed again by the same camera, moving it again in similar unsteady motions, this time affecting the focus of the lens across the flat surface, which rippled with pixels overloading the camera’s sensor, creating the shimmering moiré of rotating columns of colour, and stuttering in-continuity. This was loaded back into the video software, whereabouts some minor adjustments and further stabilisation was undertaken, along with speeding it up to its original speed, maintaining some of the artefacts of the compression process.
The image is moving, but only just; what is shown is a constant face that warps but remains constant, more an animated still image than a living, moving subject.
The mechanics of the computer’s struggle reveal the humanity behind their programming, so “error feels a sign of humanness,” and when corrective techniques are used to corrupt the image of a face, that which is definitively familiar (especially when it is one’s own), then “there is a vital tension [created] between the recognizable and the unrecognizable.” [Lucking, 2012] The video stabilisation is like the forced psychological stabilisation of tranquillisers or anti-psychotic mediation, forcing an apathetic indifference to overwhelm the chaos.
By undermining the mechanics of the film by deliberately misusing corrective editing processes, the film was thus shown as a series of broken frames struggling to hold together to form a continuous image.
To accompany the visuals, I used a distorted version of a popular song which lyrics revolve around themes of unfamiliarity, that was covered famously for the use in a film sound track that dealt with psychosis and isolationism. In order to create this, I downloaded a MIDI version of the song, loaded into Logic; a sequencing, composing and sound editing program, and made the track play through multiple human vocal synthesisers, including a whistling synth and an artificial choir. Synthetic voices seemed implicitly to embodied the idea of the post-human subject, and the uncanny confusion between synthetic and organic that resonated with the overall considerations behind the piece, which gave the audience something that seemed almost human; a digital uncanny; “unsettling the neat distinctions between humans and machines, us and them, public and private, and lively and inert.” [Hunt, 2011: 55]
This was then repeatedly exported and imported, adding noise and removing it, becoming more distorted and modulated each time.
This was then loaded into Final Cut along side the footage. However, even after the clip was duplicated, playing once forward then backward, forming a visual palindrome, the song came out as more than double the length of the film. After multi-layering slightly altered versions of the audio, which were reversed repeatedly, the sound was cut to the length of the video, and remaining audio was laid on top, and again with the final remaining section, so that the first and second half of the piece played together, merging, with the ending and beginning erupting simultaneously, making the audio start where it ends.
Though unlike the palindromic film, it did not loop be reversal, but through the cut and conclusion, and the sound would only resolved when played continually. For every time the video played twice, once forward then backward, the sound would play once; a 2:1 ratio of repetition.
Moreover, once the audio was cut to the appropriate length of the video, it was loaded back into Logic for further sound editing, in order to better coalesce with the video. Before doing this, the audio was more filtered and serene, and as a consequence more melancholic, as the morose melodies of the music came through more clearly. Though this was not intrinsically counter-productive to the effectiveness of the overall piece, the subsequent alterations to the sound-scape supported the aesthetic values of the video, rather than forming a straightforward musical accompaniment. The sound had to be purposeful, and tailored to the specifics of the video, and not just be a pleasing drone.
Though initially an EQ shift was going to be synchronised with the video, instead a tremolo modulation was synchronised to the video, so that whenever the visuals flickered, so did the audio. This was done by adjusting the automation of the effect alternating between 0 and 100%, meaning that the effect was timed to be one when there was a increase in wobble, and off when the image was more stable. To achieve greater synchronicity, this was manually sequenced, playing through the footage quickly until a disturbance was noted, then going through frame-by-frame to fine the exact time when it started and ended. The rate of the audio tremors was set be at the same rate as the tempo of the original audio, though as it was multi-layered the exact parallel between these two features cannot easily be distinguished, and the rate was more of an approximation; i.e., what worked best superficially.
This was then put alongside a version of the audio that had been past through various other modulating filters; flangers, phasers, and so forth, that would gradually change the frequency of the audio poly-rhythmically, so that the various filters would not easily synchronise or form an obvious pattern (athough as they too were set to coincide with the BPM, should the full sequence of modulations be played out at length, a regular pattern could be observed) that was (for all intensive purposes) seemingly random, and was meant to suggest a similar warping as the shifting moiré generated visual, giving a false synthesis between the senses, a sort of involuntary synaesthesia by proxy. Though this layer was considerably quieter than the juddering audio, it was slightly louder than the version without the two final effects.
This culminated in an effect that was intended to parallel the visual sensation of unstable video with the fluctuating audio; a face and a song made to seem unfamiliar, artificial. As some of those who have seen the piece, the face does not look real, it looks inorganic and a product of the digital, rather than a straight forward film of a face; not simply a reflection but an examination of the uncanny disruption of a digital representation. Much as noise was added and removed from the audio, instability was added and removed from the video; it is self correcting, and corrupting.
Moreover, once the film was uploaded to YouTube, the viewer could then contribute to the editing process, by adjusting the resolution of the film, as well as choosing to view the film as a simulated 3D video, created from the uploaded footage and algorithmically modified by the website, in order to create a visualisation of a synthetic physicality, which for this video was completely unaffectionate. All of the 3D options resulted in wildly distorted film, converse from the one I produced. The customisation of the interface, browser, and context of viewing would also be unique for each viewer, informed by the pragmatics of their own machine.
Should the video be hosted on Vimeo, the viewer is still granted the option of editing the film by choosing to view it in standard or high definition, full screen or within the window frame. Or should it be shown on a tablet computer, the viewer could pick it up and relocated, pause it, stretch it to fill the screen, play it in reverse. The contemporary browser exemplifies that however media is presented, it is inexplicable edited beyond the control of the producer of the material. Lev Manovich summarised this issue, observing that; “When a user selects a media file on his/her laptop, tablet or a phone, the file automatically opens in a media payer/viewer programme […] [offering] some basic editing functions. […] You cannot simply ‘access’ media with automatically being offered some way to ‘modify’ it.” [Manovich, 2013: 153]
The algorithms used to create and view; produce and consume; ‘prosume’ and converse are subject to the conditions that their software parameters enable. In other words, to be granted access to contemporary digital media* instigates that the viewer is a participant, however passively that they may wish to be their act of consumption. A sublimely sublimated example of this being the use of meta-data to inform search results, ie; browser history informing current and future viewing. “Google alters your search results; Amazon changes the products it shows you; the UK online supermarket Ocado even alters the prices it charges you, lowering shipping charges if you’re a new customer.” [Hern, 2014] What has been seen directly informing what will be seen, with websites using traces of the users’ previous interactions to modify and filter their later use, to satisfy the commercial interests of the website providing the service.
Undesirable items may be deliberately “buried in algorithmic censorship” to create the desired affect, and to keep users pacified and benign in banality, but such unwitting “algorithms have consequences,” and why “net neutrality is a human rights issue”, [Tufekci, 2014] as online media have the potential to moderate and filter information far more thoroughly, immediately and to a larger audience than previous media was capable, such as with newspapers; which once printed and distributed become difficult to edit, several thousand copies of a document are hard to loose down memory holes, meaning amending errors, avoiding libel or unwanted opinion in light of more immediate information is problematic in a way converse to that of online media which can be altered at any time; and is altered by the user, as all “new media is interactive,” [Manovich, 2001: 49] and no interaction goes unnoticed, not when there is a potential for profit.
Likewise: “new technologies cannot but alter the organic human body through new forms of wanted and unwanted intimacy.” [Braidotti, 2013: 107] As the user alters what they are seeing by seeing it, they themselves are simultaneous modified by their experience, affecting their bias, opinions, and how they act out their psychological understanding through their physical environment as a product of their interacting with the digital landscape though material interfaces of perpetually remediated, unending resources. With what is experienced “as properties of media content comes from software used to create, edit, present, and access this content.” [Manovich, 2013: 150] The individual forms a inescapable feedback loop through interface.
Moreover, “the notion that news is continuous as opposed to an episodic thing has a lot of dramatic effects on the consumers of that information.” [Cerf, 2008] Even this bit of writing, and the piece originally being discussed can be redrafted and re-uploaded without hesitation from anywhere with an internet connection and a compatible device. Not only is “all culture, past and present […] filtered through a computer, with its particular human-computer interface,” [Manovich, 2001: 64] but it is filtered again through algorithms, with each “remediation” [Bolter, 2000: 11] loading it with new meaning, and the biases of the mediators; changing the context of the content, with the “question of transparency” [Bolter, 2000: 71] surrounding mediation being a prime concern. If websites use algorithms to alter their user’s content but are open about their mediation, then there is little that con be contested wit regards to their responsibility for representation, as all interests are commercial. In “the great Culture of tactile communication,” [Baudrillard, 1983: 139] such manipulations should be self-evident, but frequently may slip out of sight, out of mind. As with any media; the consumer has to be critically aware of how and why their experience has be altered by the producers.
Hence sites like Facebook filter the user’s newsfeed algorithmically in order to create and environment which will sustain the interest of the individual for longer, making them ore likely to click on adverts and links, from which they make a profit. “The environments we interact in are also shaped by a commercially-motivated imperative that has political effects: the desire to keep us happy.” [Wilson, 2014] It should be unsurprising when such sites use their position of power to experiment on their users/human products. Such as the “vast experiment in which it manipulated information posted on 689,000 users’ home pages and found it could make people feel more positive or negative through a process of ’emotional contagion'”. [Booth, 2014] It could be seen that such cookies form the semiotics of searching. Literally; if the user clicks a link for one item, then that will inform what items are subsequently displayed to them. For all the information that users give to websites to ease their own use, they are then subject to the growing controls and mediation of those organisation, and thus the individual is unwittingly caught up in the streamed formed from the downpour of their own use; consumed by consumption.
(*Distinguishing between digital and non digital media is rapidly becoming redundant when discussing ‘new media’, or anything contemporary onwards.)
- Baudrillard, Jean. (1983) Simulations. New York. Semiotexte. MIT Press
- Bolter, Jay David and Grusin, Richard. (2000) Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press. Paperback edition. London, England.
- Booth, Robert. (2014) Facebook reveals news feed experiment to control emotions. The Guardian [Online] – http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jun/29/facebook-users-emotions-news-feeds – Accessed 1.9.14
- Braidotti, Rosi. (2013) The Posthuman. Polity Press. Cambridge. UK.
- Hunt, Jamer. (2011) Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects: Nervous Systems and Anxious Infrastructures. Ed. Antonelli, Paola. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
- Lucking, Maura (2012) Artist Profile: Andrea Longacre-White. Rhizome (Online) http://rhizome.org/editorial/2012/oct/25/artist-profile-andrea-longacre-white/ – Accessed 20.2.2014
- Manovich, Lev (2001) The Language of the New Media. USA. MIT Press.
- Manovich, Lev. (2013) Software Takes Command. INT Edition. Bloomsbury Academic. London, UK.
- Tufekci, Zeynep. (2014) What Happens to #Ferguson Affects Ferguson. Medium [Online] – https://medium.com/message/ferguson-is-also-a-net-neutrality-issue-6d2f3db51eb0 – Accessed 2.9.14
- Wilson, Jason. (2014) The internet is a cesspit of conflict, right? No – it’s an engine of consensus. The Guardian [Online] – http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/28/the-internet-is-a-cesspit-of-conflict-right-no-its-an-engine-of-consensus – Accessed 31.8.14