Rosa Menkmann – To Smell and Taste Black Matter 1 & 2 (2009)
In order to analyze Rosa Menkmann’s glitch artwork “To Smell and Taste Black Matter”, I will draw on a qualitative materialist methodology of film studies textual analysis that is often applied to structural film. Not be be confused with Structuralism, this approach breaks down the visual and procedural elements that make up the film image, since the structure of the film is in itself the primary conceptual characteristic; the interpretations of these elements are linked primarily to cultural history and the artistic practices of making the work rather than elements which could be reduced to quantitative measurements. As I do not have a strong background in coding practices, and therefore only a fuzzy notion of the intricate processes required to create a specific image, I will compare it to practices of structural film, with which I am more familiar, in an attempt to develop a personal means to engage with conceptual space of this work. Although the processes needed to create the final image in both approaches are different, the construction of the image and the disruption of what in fact constitutes an image, is what connects the two practices together. Analogue and digital manipulation can utilize either still or moving graphics for their creations, however in this case, I will be comparing moving images, which then proceeds to draw on a specific history of experimental film.
In defining Structural Film, filmmaker Peter Gidal writes that it “… does not represent, or document, anything… each film is a record of its own making, this refers to shooting, editing, printing stages, or separations of these, dealt with specifically. Such film mitigates against dominant (narrative) cinema. Thus viewing such a film is at once viewing a film and viewing the ‘coming into presence’ of the film, i.e. the system of consciousness that produces the work, that is produced by and in it”. Glitch in many ways shares the same concerns as structuralist film. Glitch artist and theorist Nick Briz notes that glitch always exists in the present because it is a destruction of the original code—it is neither what it was, nor completely broken. Or more eloquently, as new media theorist Hugh S. Manon and artist Daniel Temkin put it, “[a]s any glitch artist will tell you, it is easy to kill a file. It is considerably more difficult to render a file undead, suspending it in a state of zombie-like decay” (Pt. #34). This decay of the original file into something uncanny—recognizable and yet wrong somehow (as per Sigmund Freud), is what draws attention to its occupation of the present and the hand of the creator, during the moment of spectatorship.
This need to deeply engage with unfamiliar images is reminiscent of Nobel-prizing winning philosopher, Henri Bergson’s ideas around attentive recognition, in which he posits that memory is developed as part of a mind-body communication, where all new experiences are informed by elements of past experience. In attentive recognition, an observer engages with an unfamiliar image by comparing it to similar objects that he or she has encountered in the past. This critical act of contemplation by comparison stimulates an active engagement with the object, which then creates new memories to be drawn on at future occasions. In relation to glitch and structuralist film, the act of making the image unrecognizable by corrupting or degrading a representational visual, fits perfectly with Bergson’s theory if we consider that the main goal of both practices is to create a presence that references process. The narrative sequence of recognizable images is broken down into components, fragments or materials (grain, emulsion, pixels, and code) that do not rely on familiar storytelling, but manage to stimulate critical contemplation nonetheless.
What is interesting with glitch film when set in contrast to its analogue cousin, is that the material structures of the two are vastly different. Whereas the celluloid surface captures an imprint of the image in chemicals in a single exposure, the computer captures the image in fragments. In fact, the notion of capturing might be a fallacy, since in the virtual environment, an image is constructed out of a mathematical translation from the original input. Groundbreaking new media theorist, Lev Manovich describes this in his 1996 Quicktime film “On the Transient Nature of an Electronic Image”, in his comparison of photochemical impressions versus the scanning gesture of the electronic image, where “different parts respond to different moments in time… these are not images really, they are more like smoke of a cigarette, which fades away when the computer screen is switched off”. In Menkman’s films, specifically here “To Smell and Taste Black Matter”, one sees the result of interference
with this scanning motion as it attempts to create a whole image. Although the original footage is described as lofi webcam footage (at times we can make out eyeballs and faces behind the noise), the image is primarily abstract fields of colour and pattern. The artifacts that occur from breaking the code striate the image, erasing and modifying large chunks of footage. In analogue modifications, often the decay is organic in nature; emulsion is peeled off the surface, scratched with implements or otherwise marked by human hands. In digital manipulations, it is impossible to literally use human gestures to change the surface of the image, and therefore any modifications appear as machinic errors. In the description for “To Smell and Taste Black Matter”, Menkman notes that the footage is created by re-compressing already low resolution footage (which in today’s world of digital perfection, is lesser-than-reality to begin with). Menkman’s description below the work notes that it results “in artifacts such as dropped and bleeding pixels, noise and weird forms of interlacing”. It is interesting to note that although the footage is inherently machine-based, and therefore separated from human gestures, Menkman’s text draws on humanistic descriptors such as “bleeding”, “dropping” and “weird”. They are emotive and gestural, something that is not normally associated with computers, and if we apply these terms to the work, it recalls Manon and Tempkins description of “zombie-like decay”. It is neither machine nor human, but rather exists in a state in-between. Neither pole is completely recognizable anymore and therefore it takes some contemplation and active engagement in order to understand it. In analogue structural film, this zombie-merger of human and machine happens on the chemical surface of film, in organic changes to chemistry and tactile scrapings at the surface of the image. It draws attention to the process of making and humanizes the camera’s eye, noting the individual artist’s hand rather than the abstract team of people that make up Hollywood narratives. It also references a DIY materiality that one cannot find in narrative productions, drawing the image down to a personal level that highlights the possibility of the spectator as a crucial participant in the film, as it would not exist without the intimate relationship between maker, film and spectator.
The small-scale of analogue film often references other ways of art-making like painting and printmaking, where the artist is alone in dialogue with the medium, unlike Hollywood where the medium is not considered a large player in the final product, and final image is a composite of work by many different participants, from actor to director to photographer to editor. In Menkman’s presentation of “To Smell and Taste Black Matter Part 1 & 2” on her website, she displays two embedded Vimeo files on a single page. Although she could easily have separated the two films onto separate pages, the composition here is deliberate. The films are obviously connected as part of a series, through the titling, and are both only one minute and fourty five seconds long, so they could have been combined if the artist had chosen to do so. However, the two films are sourced from the same material, and manipulated in different ways, therefore it makes sense that the artist would distinguish them from one another. Here the digital films become something like editions in printmaking. When it was developed, printmaking opened up the possibility of seriality, and as it has shifted from commercial applications to artistic ones in the wake of new technology, printmaking has continued to draw on its ability to make multiples.
Often artists will simply create an edition of identical duplicates, however it also opens the possibility of using the same image repeatedly in different ways, like Warhol’s silkscreens. Both printmaking and analogue structural film use this technique of re-printing and modifying single images or sequences, however this process becomes infinitely easier and cheaper with digital work. It doesn’t cost anything to save a new copy, and it doesn’t affect the original at all to “Save As”. You can control the amount of image loss, as making duplications of the same file doesn’t lose any data unless you are re-compressing or otherwise modifying the file format. This ability to act without permanent consequences to the original opens the freedom to play, hack and break as much as the artist desires. There is always a “Ctrl-Z” to save yourself from a fatal mistake. The artist is able to rework over top of originals and modifications as often as they please, creating layered possibilities of continued glitching by diving deeper into the code. However some, like Manon and Tempkin, also point out that the freedom of this seriality is simulated. Since there is always a way to return to the original, there is no real risk in breaking the file. They note that “[f]or all the destructiveness in glitch art, it is actually simulated dirt, simulated breakage, simulated risk” (Pt. 23). This causes an inherently different approach to glitch and structural film modifications, since with film, your materials are finite, and once you over-expose or over-work the surface, there is no undoing it.
Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. Trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. London: Allen & Unwin, 1919. Print.
Briz, Nick. “Glitch Code Tutorial”. Nick Briz. Nick Briz. N.p. Web. 23 October 2013. <http://www.nickbriz.com/glitchcodectutorial>.
Gidal, Peter. “Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film Pt. 1”. Structural Film Anthology. London: BFI, 1976. N.p. Web. 23 October 2013. <http://www.luxonline.org.uk/articles/theory_and_definition(1).html>.
Manon, Hugh S., and Daniel Tempkin. “Notes on Glitch.” World Picture Journal 6 (2011): N.p. Web. 14 October 2013. <http://www.worldpicturejournal.com/WP_6/Manon.html>.
Manovich, Lev. “On the Transient Nature of an Electronic Image”. Little Movies: Prolegomena for Digital Cinema. Rhizome. 19 August 2001. Web. 23 October 2013. <http://archive.rhizome.org/artbase/1688/menu3.html>.