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.


Carl Looper said...

"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."
While I'd question whether art necessarily requires an identifiable author/intent in order to called art I can appreciate the profound and beautiful of which is being spoken about here. Now many artists, particularly of the photographic persuasion, pursue the creation of images which are not necessarily authored by them, in the classical way (eg. paint/brush) but are rather "mediated", like a medium at a seance, who invokes a ghost (metaphorically speaking of course). There is much in photography (as well as art more generally) which attempts to operate, not just at the boundary of language but beyond it. In this context I question whether a signifier requires (at least initially) a signified (which it otherwise selects) within an agreed system. A system can evolve. It can evolve out of signifiers in search of their corresponding signifieds. The "agreement" which constitutes a code can occur after the fact. I think this is particularly the case with some forms of photography and cinema. Photography doesn't occur as a function of codes such as perspective. It is codes such as perspective that occur as a function of theorisation on "photographic like" images (eg. those produced in camera obscuras). If we recognise perspective codes in a photograph it because we recognise the theorisation that has occured in relation to such images.

Carl Looper said...

I should add, that I believe (but can't confirm) that the Ned Kelly transfer also involves some restoration, using techniques whereby information in one frame is borrowed to populate absences in adjacent frames. In other words the beauty of the "boiling" image, tentatively located at the boundary of language, (or beyond) in a post-human chemical/code, may not be entirely identifiable as such - that some of that "boiling" may be a function of the restoration algorithms. Irregardless I'd question whether the result of such a technique (if indeed it was used) would be entirely a function of an agreed system, or code anyway. Algorithms are particularly interesting in this respect, insofar as they are written independantly of the content on which they otherwise operate. It is precisely their independance which makes them "work" across more than just a specific piece of content. So called "content-aware" algorithms are anything but. For example, a square root algorithm, unlike a lookup table of square roots, can produce the square-root of any number, not just those precomputed in a finite lookup table. The programmer, does not need to be aware of what the content of a supplied number will be in order for the square root algorithm to work. And the program, being a machine, isn't aware either. Machine intelligence is something the surrealists were aiming to identify and expose in deconstructions of the content/code that machines otherwise appear to exhibit. For example, Duchamp's urinal becomes art at that point where the urinal's code is deconstructed (installing it in art gallery rather than a toilet). The art of surrealism (and more so Dada) was very much about what might be found beyond intentions, beyond agreed systems, beyond the code.

Sean Cubitt said...

You're right on the restoration process: according toSally Jackson and National Film and Sound Archive of Australia histrian Graham Shirley,
The surviving fragments were digitally scanned by Haghefilm Laboratories in Amsterdam using the DIAMANT digital restoration system. This allowed major cleaning to remove dirt, scratches and other blemishes, and eliminated the jitter characteristic of the original footage. This digital approach also allowed for the re-creation of frame content which had otherwise been lost through physical deterioration. To achieve this, the Haghefilm restorers copied and modified content from adjacent frames to replace missing information in damaged ones. The result is the cleaner, clearer and much more detailed film we have today. (