WHEN PLAY ENDS AND ART STARTS?

Posted on January 27, 2010

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By: Nayla Majestya

New Media Art is a very intimidating term nowadays that also inescapable when film with capital F dragged into discourse. On August 3rd, 2009, Jakarta welcomes two International Master Classes on that subject, both by coincidence held in Film and Television Faculty, Jakarta Institute of the Arts. In the former classes titled History of New Media Art as part of OK. Video Jakarta International Video Festival program, Agung Hujatnikajennong explained the early relationship between technology and art that remarked the birth of New Media Art. Then followed by Reinhaart Vanhoe who showed some experimental films that probably meant to be some old references about new practice of art in cinematic basis.

But, the most remarkable class comes from David Teh’s (held by Klub Kajian Film IKJ) that practically brought the ‘New’ word from New Media Art discourse into a different level of meaning. Starting with an insight of problems that New Media Art bring to cinema, Teh introduces another glittering term like Hypermedia, Transparent Media, Digital Post-Formalism, and Post Broadcast Media. Following Marshall McLuhan’s jargon[1]: ‘The medium is the Message’, Teh explained that New Media is not intended to replace the so-called old media. In fact, both are mixed and it called Remediation. It also has this specific characteristic that involves a self-critical tendency.  Teh showed two unusual films that told more about it. The one titled ‘Speed’ (Emil Goh, 2005) is an amazing self-medium-conscious, self-medium-critical piece of video art with the way it mocks the conventional Hollywood cinema, whilst ‘The Birds’ (Stephen Fox, 2006) questioning a very old and sacred concept in Avant-Garde cinema like authorship or auteur[2], if you prefer le mot Francais.

Of course New Media Art is more than just having fun with new way of presenting or inventing the medium. Borrowing Seno Gumira Ajidarma’s term[3], cinema associated with technology because it’s intertwined between techne (technique) and ideology. We acknowledge the camera, lens, and celluloid as a product of technology. But, we called cinema as seventh art because there’s some technique used to represents something and this something is a product of ideology.

‘Speed’ and ‘The Birds’ are examples how this ideology operates. ‘Speed’ showed a new way to watch film Speed (starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock). Instead of showing it in the original 116 minutes duration, this ‘Speed’ literally speeding the duration so what we see is a whole film screened in fast motion and it ended just in couple of minutes. The funny thing is, even with those only couple of minutes, we can actually get the story.

‘The Birds’ is another case of playing with technology. Stephen Fox’s lengthy homage to Hitchcock’s The Birds provides a world away from soap. In scenes taken from the film, Fox obliterates every bird from the footage. Filling the negative space of each bird with other footage and slowing audio to a low groan, he creates a complex montage of absent menace. At the climax the birds attack the family, but with the birds obliterated, the people seem to be shielding and fighting a demonic, imagined force. And the result is some disturbing and weird images that not only criticize something about this so-called demonic imagined force, but also questioning some essential thing of authorship. Is there any -let say- Hitchcockian thing that being imprinted in The Birds, so we can sure recalled it no matter how or when it screened? Can we label Fox’s video as a plagiarism? Or probably there is a method to quote from another film like in literature tradition when someone quoting someone else’s words in their own writing.

Yet, at the surface those kinds of video art looks like some kind of playful work. The images are a result from experimentation with technology and art. But, what is experiment anyway? Isn’t it actually a play? Give the brush and paint to a 5 years old kiddo and Pollock and let them do whatever they want. They will probably make something similar, some playful painting with color and contour. But, what makes both labeled differently? Where is the margin between play and art? Well, let’s leave Pollock alone. How about Picasso? Doesn’t his works on cubism literally just a playful treatment on realism? But, then, where is this label as ‘a big break in modern painting’ comments come all of sudden? When the play ends and art starts?

According to Teh, video art in the context of new media art is probably a very effective strategy to make a counter-kind-of-cinema against the dominant Hollywoodian work that we can categorize it as Transparent Media. It’s the term used to define a kind of media that simply work to immerse the audience into it. It’s manipulative in a way that the audiences are not conscious in their own presence, consuming media. What kind of ideology work beneath it is something that works for the good of people behind it, behind this multimillion-dollar business. Either the big guy in tie (coporation) or big guy in gun (government).  So, the circle goes like this: the dominant cinemas are works of dominant ideology that serves the purposes of the dominant power that regulates the world we lived in.

It’s Noam Chomsky[4] that introduce me the term ‘herd’ as something those Big Guys referring to when they pointed at us, the common citizen on this planet. A bunch of noisy herd that need to be distracted according to make them not bugging in to the Big business like ruling a country or make some Big corporate guy’s business even bigger. Dominant cinema (the Hollywood and Hollywodian) as a part of the apparatus of the dominant ideology, then serve to distract us from bugging the Big guy’s Business. The early history of video-based mass media -let say Television- in Indonesia since 1962 probably the best prove we had to show how New Order’s ideology operates to lullabied and distract us from real problem like corruption, mass killing, and oppressive policies.

The tendency of New Media Art that is very self-conscious and self-critical to the media itself is probably one of the most effective weapons against that lullaby. Against that dark force that regulates their power through media/broadcasting political machine. And we are far grown up bunch of people from that 5 years kiddo who experiments with painting like Pollock without even know what it is. And that’s what the margins between play and art is about. You have your video and have fun with the images it’s a play. You have your video, making your images that said something about it, about your own concern of your own media and explores through its capability; make your own statement on it; that’s new art.

Oh well, let’s push aside that shinny word for a second, that glittering ‘new’ word. It was Agnes Varda[5] who coined the question “when the play ends and art starts?” in her The Gleaners and I (2000), where she probably just having fun with his video camera when she takes some images of her hand, her photos collections, a bizarre refrigerator exhibition, and heart-shaped potatoes. But through those images, she makes a statement, thinking through the idea of humanness and about images and also images making. The thing about cinema as technology and art is because it contains technique and ideas. You have the freedom to play with any kind of images, with any kind of technique, using any kind of media, exhibit it in any kind of way, and you make a craft. But, the idea, what you said about it or through it, is what makes the craft transformed into something. It is what turned play into art.


[1] This phrase is probably the most cliché phrase quoted everywhere.  Meaning that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived. The phrase was introduced in his most widely known book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published in 1964. McLuhan proposes that media itself, not the content it carries, should be the focus of study. He said that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not only by the content delivered over the medium, but also by the characteristics of the medium itself.

[2] Auteur theory has had a major impact on film criticism ever since it was advocated by film director and film critic François Truffaut in 1954. “Auteurism” is the method of analyzing films based on this theory or, alternately, the characteristics of a director’s work that makes him an Auteur. Both the Auteur theory and the Auteurism method of film analysis are frequently associated with the French New Wave and the film critics who wrote for the influential French film review periodical Cahiers du cinéma.

[3] Ajidarma, Seno Gumira. Imaji. 2007.

[4] Chomsky, Noam. Media Control. 2002. New York: Seven Stories Press.

[5] The so-called ‘the grand-mother of French New Wave’. Unlike her contemporaries who wrote for the Cahiers du Cinéma, Varda resists intellectualising about film. Despite similarities to the French New Wave, films by Varda belonged more precisely to the complementary Rive Gauche (Left Bank Cinema) movement, along with Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Cayrol and Henri Colpi.