Argumented Reality (preview)
11. – 24. 10. 2021
Alice Růžičková, Martin Búřil, Martin Blažíček, Martin Ježek, David Přílučík, Tomáš Kajánek, Oskar Helcel, Lenka Hámošová, Barbora Trnková & Tomáš Javůrek. Kurátorka: Lenka Střeláková.
The exhibition follows the possibility and need – recurring for each generation – of the media work to bear witness to itself through hypermedia, self-reflective creative principles. The presented works of Czech art of the moving image of film and video made in the past twenty-five years (between 1997 and 2021) generally do so explicitly, though always in a different genre and with a significantly different creative background.
Within the history of the moving image, the modernist approach to the medium and its specificity is most clearly detectable in the episodes of experimental film and video art, represented at this exhibition by three cinematic experimentalists (Alice Růžičková, Martin Blažíček, and Martin Ježek) and their works from the second half of the 1990s. Within this approach, the materiality of the recording medium – and also specific perceptual mechanisms – are attacked with the aim of uncovering the medium, the system or dispositive, typically affecting this activity in the form of the intentionally produced “error”, manifesting the idealist pathos of playing against the apparatus. In this context, refusing the automatic programme of the black box, opening it or at least shining it through using the generated error, gap, or noise, usually meant the manipulation of the film material and later also the electronic image signal or the materiality of the screening situation and the like.
(Every) new medium, however, incorporates in itself and its programme an obsolete medium even with these potential errors and “weak spots” – it is no longer threatened by them, rather, they are blind spots that make the new medium more solid, confirming its position as the smoother and more perfect successor. Processes of remediation store these errors and classify them into available sets used, in case of need, for a fast characterisation of the given media; for its simulation.
With this capacity of new media to fully transform and make use of the “play against the apparatus”, however, the critical and creative need of a new countermovement does not disappear. Just as in the process of the self-definition of a new media or technology, a part is played by its defining itself against the older medium or media, so its adoption naturally increases the need to name its new, concrete, specific representations of the world. In the age of digital media, under what’s known as post-media conditions with increasingly transparent interfaces, the situation is urgent. The critical potential thus logically moves from a thematisation of media specificity to the question of mediation itself. And in relation to the digital image – given its affinity to post-production and treatment through AI – the burden of truth is inverted with increasing frequency. A mediated reality becomes an argumented reality.
The other works selected for this exhibition thus come some time after the historically anchored formats of experimental film. They are also generally created by artists operating primarily in the context of visual art (animation, fine art, photography, new media, net art, or design). They explore the creation of new media art of the moving image making use of contemporary post-production technology, software, and algorithms. On the background of a more or less epic adventure (with topics including current ecological, social, political, and economic problems) they simulate, uncover, parody, and generally thematise the possibility for argumenting reality through synthetic media, specifically the image, whose indexical trace is more of a homeopathic memory covered by a long succession of abstracted and generated data.
The oldest films included, from the late 1990s, are some of the Czech echoes of structural/ materialist film. This genre is characterised by aspects including a making visible of the film material through thematised approaches to its material and photochemical properties, as well as editing processes directed by certain formal, predetermined rules or a directly mathematically defined structure. The resultant work is anti-illusional – it does not imitate seeing, or rather the common forms of depicting pre-camera reality to which the eye of the spectator of classic cinematic or televised productions has become accustomed, let alone traditional narrative methods. Instead, it supplies its recipient not only with the processed material, but also that alienating effect that – placing itself in the centre of the action – demands attention or at least gnaws at the unsewn edges of the image.
The films of Martin Blažíček and Alice Růžičková are among the experimental works where working with the materiality of film and projection becomes a topic that is supported by the choice of subject matter. In Alice Růžičková’s Biostruktury (Biostructures, 1997–1998), these are natural fragments (flower blossoms and other parts of plants) that can be illuminated by the projector, as well as the blank roll of 16mm film they were pasted on. Both layers thus blend into a matter and a material for film screening that is mute, thanks to which it can be – under adequate screening conditions – auditively experienced in itself. Biostructures thus not only portray the natural materials but also uncover the transparency of the cinematographic dispositive, an effect that unfortunately cannot be fully mediated in this referential level of presentation.
A similarly layered form of narration is used by artist and animator Martin Búřil in his 2011 film MONOSKOP no. 3 (monkeyking legend), in which he uses “no-input animation” to tell the story of the monkey king whilst also simultaneously demonstrating the process of creating a particular form of animation. The spectator can refocus between these two narratives. The missing visual elements replaced by simple geometric shapes thus gradually flow into more general questions – how far can narration be abstracted whilst remaining intelligible and what role is played by the other missing elements, emphasised by the absence of visual information. Búřil’s MONOSKOP thus truly works like a test pattern with which the spectator tunes themselves based on their perceptual activity and mental engagement, and this variable, this reference becomes an inherent part of the work.
The orchestration of various elements representing the fundamental cinematic meta-level is also the foundation of Martin Blažíček 1997 short film Test, which consciously fulfils the definition of structural film. Blažíček works with found footage which he cut up and copied back onto 16mm film so that the resultant dynamic collage emphasises supportive elements such as sprocket holes, the head leader with the iconic countdown sequence, and other auxiliary markings. Test also includes other defining features of this experimental sub-genre: a confrontation of the positive and negative image (including the flicker effect) or a cinematic rhythm determined by graphic notation. Unlike the two films discussed above, the narrative is not doubled. Instead, it is metaphorically transferred as the theme of the found film (human physiology) is transformed – says the artist – into the theme of the film (the physiology of film).
But in the work of a different artist, a work of structural/materialist film, whose principles might be considered iconoclastic, focusing critically on the formal conditions of the creation and existence of the work, can well become a suggestive image of a deeper, more ecstatic way of seeing the world. This turn is typical of the work of Martin Ježek, in whose films everything is characteristically “loud”: the editing cadence, the insistent voice trapped in a fragment of a radio play, the stubbornly repetitive form, and also the theme itself – fundamental, philosophical, existential. This is true of Ježek’s later and current works (e.g. Spálenej fešák [The Burnt Hunk], 2011; Heidegger in Auschwitz, 2016, or Mohyla války [War Burial Mound], 2019) as well as his early pieces, such as Oděsa-Krym (Odessa-Crimea) from 1999–2000. After a short video phase, Ježek began using film and this is one of his first Super 8 films, on which – as he himself states – he concurrently learned to use a different mode of thinking through the film camera, light, and, of course, editing. The principles used in Odessa-Crimea, however, are the same as that used in his later works, dividing the level of seemingly slapdash, unregulated shooting and controlled editing. The “travelogue” material capturing fragmentary impressions from cities once inhabited by the poet Marina Tsvetaeva is a result of the film-maker’s spontaneous, even gestural shooting, but is further processed virtually as if it were found footage. Ježek compares his work to field recording or serialism in music – he reframes the collected material through the structural form, the composition follows the formal parameters of the shots (duration, contrast, brightness, etc.), not their original contents. What’s more, the diary entries are “drawn over” by the sound track, which consists of a fatalist recitation in fragments and repetitions of Marina Tsvetaeva’s fatal Poem of the Mountain. Following the logic of creative combinatorics and experimentalism, it is recorded from a vinyl record played back at various speeds. In Ježek’s case, the layering of various narratives described above comes together in a cinematography of affect, where the supremely accented and exploited cinematic means are also simultaneously used as an expressive form of expression for an entirely specific subject matter, and where the brutality of this insistence can only be carried by raw film material.
In the case of digital work, artists often address in a similar manner its smooth and seamless nature. This is the case in David Přílučík’s 2015 work En plein air 2, which references the new relationship to the landscape and its depiction, which takes place with the aim of demonstrating the reproductive quality of technological products. The artist’s aim of deconstructing the synthesised image of anonymised and idealised landscapes from Samsung promotional videos using “retrograde” post-production led to a hypnotic four-hour audiovisual féerie. Extending the short compressed images composed of time lapses into the temporal dimensions for which the artist estimated the original exposition of the landscape might have lasted then works as a tool reporting on the factual mining of applied, subtly circulating, and subliminally affecting images (Přílučík emphasises the topic of escapism and the visuality of free time), but also on the exploitation of nature as a specific, technology-supported, and interiorised relationship to the world. Similar themes appear repeatedly in David Přílučík’s work, e.g. in relation to the question of non-human entities or agents and their rights. However, it also prefigures the characteristic forms of contemporary audiovisual art. An art that is beginning to be implicitly engaged even in its more introverted forms and manifestations, critically accentuating both the technology itself, or rather the entire media apparatus, but also specific political and social phenomena connected to it or possible to articulate through its mediation. The fundamental anti-illusiveness of these works does not rely on the previously popular and well tested method of subtraction. More often than not, the artists work with additive methods, sometimes shrouding the work in hyperrealism in the uncanny valley manner.
This is also true, to an extent, of some of the other exhibited pieces, which were created as an apt response to the dramatic developments in “deep fake” technology. The first Czech artists to respond last year were Tomáš Kajánek (Malinko nakouknout / Take a Little Peep), Oskar Helcel (It’s Buildable), and Jiří Žák (DeepReal Havel, not part of this exhibition), who incorporated their artistic research on machine learning and artificial neural networks into a strong culturally political narrative. In their interpretation, technology creates both the desired illusion and an image of self-confessed manipulation that proves itself guilty. It’s important to mention, however, that this “unmasking” mostly has to do with the unsatisfactory production circumstances in which both works were created – neither Kajánek nor Helcel were explicitly seeking to achieve it. Both artists bring a cultural celebrity back to life (the singer Lil Peep and the architect Zaha Hadid) without denying their death – on the contrary, their death is part of the message.
Rabbits and anemochorous plants, those traditional pioneers of no man’s land, model the scenery for the exhausted gaze and body of Helcel’s Zaha Hadid. Her life’s journey leads to an aimless posthumous wandering in a space that – like her – lingers in anticipation of a questionable urbanist project. The dug-out and overgrown foundations are filled with the sounds of the nearby train station, occasionally seeming to tug at her surprised, resigned face. Helcel checkmates the image of developers’ lack of contextual sensitivity through deep fake technology, showing the non-place as a purgatory indifferently observing the central character: how to enter the next level without losing face?
In Tomáš Kajánek’s Take a Little Peep, the rapper speaks on his life after death – which is, in this case, palpable, given his millions of fans – from the mists of the great beyond. The tragically deceased star of emo rap is framed in a vertical video styled as a social media post, his face in a typical – only perhaps unusually restrained – mix of sadness, anxiety, and outrage, thoughtfully opening his heart on the commodification of psychological suffering to which he lent his name, face, and art (Kajánek’s screenplay was inspired by the work of Mark Fisher). “I monopolized the depression. I only confirmed the fuckin’ privatization of despair and shit, detached from any kind of solidarity. I should have been converting this shit into politicised anger. I mean like straight up, cut their faces off, you know.“
In her piece created this year, Personalized Synthetic Advertising, Lenka Hámošová, whose theoretical as well as practical work has explored artificial intelligence and synthetic media in connection with visual culture for a long time, has chosen a much more direct and confrontational form of the deep fake phenomenon, connecting it to another powerful phenomenon: personalised advertising. One of her aims was to introduce the true nearness and reality of this technology, whose potential application certainly does not contain only “the others”, i.e. politicians and other figures in the public eye. What’s more, the practices of lockdown presented our cameras and video conference applications with an unprecedented number of faces, which certainly accelerated the development of tools for instant deep fake transformation of identity from a live video. Everything else is merely a matter of interconnecting the personal data we are constantly sharing, which is effectively demonstrated here by the last exhibition piece.
The exhibition closes with a 2019 interactive audiovisual piece by Barbora Trnková & Tomáš Javůrek, Like-Un-Like, a native digital work, moving image that is no longer a video and that confronts the curatorial theme – and the entire exhibiting and collecting framework of the NFA Video Archive – with a number of new questions. If the works presented here open the black boxes of media apparatus and let us peek into how they work, Like-Un-Like also simultaneously shows us how they look into us. Like with Tomáš Kajánek, the image format refers to the users experiences with the media environment – the shot from a plane window reminds us of a phone screen mediating a view that is considerably limited and thus not entirely under our control. Or perhaps in a different manner than we thought, as our view is haptic and serves as the source of a huge amount of instantly stored data.
Argumented Reality collects and presents original new media works in the field of the moving image, also related to which are several older, conceptually allied works of film. Of all these works, however, Like-Un-Like is the only one (with perhaps the exception of Personalized Synthetic Advertising) whose adequate presentation can take place here, on the web. Thanks to this piece, we can experience on this online platform the highly discussed topic of the disruption of the transparency of the media apparatus, about which the other exhibited works only refer, as their effects are tied to a different media interface or mode of presentation. This ultimately shows that argumented reality is formed not only by the artists themselves but also by theorists, historians, archivists, or the developers of various emulators, who are relied upon to ensure that these works perform in the new presentation environment – such as the newly developed Video Archive – without losing their original sense and meaning.