Friday, February 24, 2012

The Story of the Kelly Gang

I dropped in to ACMI's Screen Worlds exhibit. Included there is footage from the 1906 Story of the Kelly Gang (clips available from Australian Screen), transferred to video, preserving the distorting effects where the nitrate stock has melted, burned or otherwise reacted chemically with its environment prior to its restoration.

The result is a video which constantly oscillates between faithful reproduction of a filmed drama and the broiling deformations of the decayed filmstrip. The resulting video is a viscously attractive palimpsest of natural and historical process, a suture of fiction and material over which, once instigated, neither chemist nor filmmaker have no control. The telecine transfer must have proceeded frame by frame, given the deformity and fragility of the original, and therefore stands as a remediation which has as purpose to reconstruct an imagined ideal, reconstructing frame rate, aspect ratio, contrast levels and steadiness of illumination, so preserving as much as possible of the original while at the same time demonstrating both the archivists' art and the necessity and urgency of practicing it on the Australian visual heritage. Yet it is a profound and beautiful visual experience in itself, one is none the worse because, for want of an identifiable author and therefore of an identifiable intent, we cannot be justified in calling it a work of art. It is exactly that boundary of justification that takes us to the boundary of the 'uncanny valley' in a-life where rationalist conceptions of the posthuman meet its actuality, that marks a-life as significant even though it is a-signifying, or even (as chora) pre-signifying, even when post-human. It is the fact that the distortions in the ACMI Ned Kelly do not 'signify', in the sense of constructing meaningful differences inside an agreed system for the production and syntagmatic-paradigmatic management of signs. But this fact is itself significant, in Bateson's sense of 'a difference that makes a difference', that creates information, that occurs not within a system but at that boundary where system breaks out of its structural stasis and embraces the dimension of time. This is a proto-cinematic artefact of the uncanny imbrication of intentional human design (the 19th century realist drama and photographic record of the original Kelly) and processes unleashed (chemical or code) which operate in the medium, as medium, beyond the borders of human intent. It is an artificial life form, one that has evolved on a set of initiating chemical conditions according to its own un-human logic, remodelling one code in form of another, or to borrow from Metz, from a language without a code to a code without a language. There are lessons here for our understanding of the analog media.