The Work of the Moving Image in the Age of its Digital Corruptibility

by Daniel Rourke

“The cinema can, with impunity, bring us closer to things or take us away from them and revolve around them, it suppresses both the anchoring of the subject and the horizon of the world… It is not the same as the other arts, which aim rather at something unreal or a tale. With cinema, it is the world which becomes its own image, and not an image which becomes world.”

Giles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement Image

Take 12 images and splice them end to end: a shaded length of acetate through which a bright white light is to be shone. This makes one second of film. The reel spools onwards, as the seconds tick by, and from these independent images (isolations of time separated in space) an illusion of coherence emerges.

During a recent flurry of internet activity I stumbled across the work of Takeshi Murata. His videos, having made their way, legitimately or otherwise, into the mysterious Realm of YouTube, have achieved something of a cult status. Among various digital editing techniques Murata is one of the most famous purveyors of the 'Datamoshed' video. A sub-genre of 'glitch-art', datamoshing at first appears to be a mode of expression fine-tuned for the computer geek: a harmless bit of technical fun with no artistic future. But as I watched Murata's videos, from Monster Movie (2005), through to Untitled (Pink Dot) (2007) I became more and more convinced that datamoshing has something profound to say about the status of the image in modern society. Furthermore, and at the risk of sounding Utopian, datamoshing might just be to film what photography was to painting.

Take a human subject. Any will do. Have them sit several metres from your projection, making sure to note that their visual apparatus is pointing towards, and not away from, the resulting cacophony of images. There is no need to alert the subject to your film. Humans, like most animals, have a highly adapted awareness of movement. Your illusion cannot help but catch their attention. As soon as the reel begins to roll they will be hooked.

Cinema is all pervasive. Not just because we all watch (and love) movies, nor that the narratives emerging from cinema directly structure our modern mythos. Rather it is through the language of cinema, whether we are sat in front of a screen or not, that much of the past hundred years of cultural change, of technological and political upheaval can be understood. For Walter Benjamin, whose writings on media appeared almost as regularly as the images flashed by a movie projector, the technology of film fed into and organised the perceptual apparatus of the modern era.

Soon the subject will tire of your film. This has nothing to do with their attention span, nor is it an indication that your film itself is dull. Rather, in a very short time the human subject will grow so accustomed to the cacophony of images that they will begin to consider it as a natural component of their world. The solution is simple. Over the coming decades, as new technologies emerge, incorporate them into your film. For instance, sound has long been important to humans. Why not use some? And while you are at it, throw in some colour, expand the size of your images, begin projecting 24 images a second rather than 12… But I am getting ahead of myself. First you will need a good story, or better still, a political aspiration you wish to impose upon your solitary viewer. Don't hesitate to let your imagination fly. It's amazing what can be expressed with 24 images a second.

Benjamin was talking about mass production, about technological reproducibility and the impact that it was having on our notion of identity. What did it mean to be subsumed by material objects, each identical in kind to the last? The role of cinema in grasping this change was, for Benjamin, crucial. Like the illusion which emerges from 24 images projected each second the fragmentation of modern society only increased as the cohesion it promoted intensified. As the objects around us lose their uniqueness, being merely replicas of one another, so the human subject mistakes the closeness of perception for the authenticity of the object. Film was, and perhaps still is, a kind of expulsion from the present experience. In cinema reality becomes multiplied. Via contiguous images an experience of clarity works to sharpen human perception. Once a film ends this mode of seeing carries onward into the world, pushing the present deeper and deeper beneath the apparatus of society. For Benjamin film, and more directly cinema, was the looking glass of our times. And as our times grew ever more complex in their appearance, so it was film which would stand as our totem:

“Seriousness and play, rigor and license, are mingled in every work of art, though in very different proportions… The primary social function of art today is to rehearse the interplay [between nature and humanity]. This applies especially to film. The function of film is to train human beings in the apperception and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their lives is expanding almost daily.”

Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility

Consider the frame of your film as a frame upon a world. Within its boundaries your human subject will experience depths of motion, of emotion, that explode their centered selves. Before long your subject will begin to mistake movement of the frame for movement within the frame, for is it not the case that as the movie camera follows its actors it isolates them within the repeated image? Watch as the horse gallops, each flick of the hooves moving it onwards in space and time. The horse gallops in relation to the moving frame: an isolated image of change for the single viewer to behold. Note how your human subject mistakes time for space, and space for time. Note how, before long, the horse's gallop elicits a knowing yawn beneath the viewer's lingering gaze. Perception has exploded, and the world will never be the same again.

In cinema the image became multiplied, expanded and distributed. Through the machine of the projector images spooled, one after another; through the machine of Hollywood film was expressed, dispersed and made contiguous with the substance of society. It appears that now, in the age of the digital, video has replaced film as our noun of choice, and like the omnipresent images of the filmic event, it is now video itself which has become multiple. YouTube is to video what cinema was to the image. Instead of directors and editors, we now have video mix-ups and internet memes. Instead of montage we have 'channels', instead of Grand Opening Nights and Red Carpets we have 'Share this on Facebook' buttons and vast comments sections filled with debate, debase and debunk. In short Youtube, and distributive systems like it, have become the new frame within which the images of video, and their illusionary after-effects, are isolated and re-expressed, in endless repetition:

“The cinematographic image is always dividual. This is because, in the final analysis, the screen, as the frame of frames, gives common standard of measurement to things which do not have one – long shots of countryside and close-ups of the face, an astronomical system and a single drop of water – parts which do not have the same denominator of distance, relief or light. In all these senses the frame ensures a deterritorialisation of the image.”

Giles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement Image

By now your human subject should not only understand the language of film, they should live it. Over 100 years have passed since you began your experiment, and in that time film, by becoming cinema, has grown to such proportions that no aspect of human perception may escape from it. Like a stone-age baby brought up to be a chattering homo-sapien, your subject will, by now, be a walking, talking embodiment of the cinematic. You may fear this coming of age, and quite rightly, for rather than admiring from afar the power of the camera, of the edit and the montage, your subject will believe that their world was always this contiguous. The copy has been copied, beyond its means to produce unique moulds. Cinema has begun to simulate itself. The last image rolls now, the last flicker of light colours the retina. Today the great experiment has ended.

Digital distribution systems like YouTube are only possible because of a series of clever algorithms which compress the information contained within each video. Data compression, in a nutshell, turns 24 separate images a second into the minimal of information required to create an approximation of those same frames sliding into each other. Why place every frame of a video online if within each frame, and shared amongst them, there exist aspects of the image which remain the same across contiguous moments? Compression is like the reduction of video into its component DNA. By reducing a video to the DNA required to compose each image half of the job of compression is done. The second, and perhaps, cleverer part of video compression is the addition of another segment of 'DNA' which tells video software how the movement between each image should be expressed. Datamoshing plays with these elements. It breaks the notion of separation between image and movement, indeed, it creates a new merging reference between the two. In the datamoshed video image and movement are blended, even interchanged for one another. Each unique image in the datamoshed video becomes a token of movement within a frame that extends far beyond the isolated/compressed moment.

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In a datamoshed video an image from frame 10 of the video can leak, corrupt and interface with an image in frame 100. What's more, the movement DNA exchanged between contiguous frames can jump ahead, can blend with a previous image or be removed completely. To the datamosher, time and image become a delicious paint pallet expressing in motion. To the datamosher, a series of frames, or even a series of videos, can be tempted to break their boundaries and merge, forging brand new steps in a whirling datamosh-dance.

As cinematographic subjects we have an integral understanding of the language of film. Although we know that the frames of cinema are separate, are mere instant images of a whole, we crave the illusion of movement they create. Takeshi Murata's short film, Untitled (Pink Dot), corrupts this separation between image and movement, the viewer and the viewed. In an early frame we briefly notice Sylvester Stallone fire his gun, but as the resulting explosion rips across the frame his image is transposed into the fire, leaving a remnant of his figure to merge with the resulting miasma. Throughout this interplay, a pulsing pink dot draws our attention at the centre of the frame. This dot, surely a symbol of our viewing, perceiving centre, is blended, symbiotically, with the datamoshed miasma. It is as if we, our viewing centres enraptured by the filmic event, have been consumed by its flow. Our cinematic instinct still perceives the figure of Rambo, of the flash of the machine-gun pulse, but as the explosive fire tears through the pink dot it is as if our minds have been melted through too.

What would have Walter Benjamin and Giles Deleuze thought of datamoshing? of YouTube videos displayed on iPhones? of High Definition data files corrupted by pink dots and compression artefacts? These new technologies and modes of distribution play into our instincts in much the same way that film did 100 years ago. Reality has always been formed in feedback with our technologies. As our art and culture express time and space in ever greater multiples so our minds are forced to complexify to catch up. The feedback which follows, through artistic expression and cultural contemplation, drags the human subject through their world at ever greater speeds. According to media theorist Lev Manovich, this continued feedback between technology and art determines the boundaries of our world:

“Modernisation is accompanied by a disruption of physical space and matter, a process that priveleges interchangeable and mobile signs over original objects and relations… Before, different physical locations met within a single magazine spread or film newsreel; now they meet within a single electronic screen.”

Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media

Cinema evolved alongside the most expansive century that mankind has ever seen. It allowed us, along with various other technologies, to isolate the complex present in ways inconceivable before. I don't wish to offer any branching philosophy here, nor talk at length on the perceptual or cultural importance of 'compression artefacts'. Instead I ask you to gather up your perceptive apparatus, and let it sift slowly through the various videos distributed throughout (and below) this article. In the realm of YouTube where every video can lead to every other, where all moving images can be re-appropriated, re-edited and re-distributed as pure data, in this realm, datamoshing symbolises the perceptual status of our times. There is something about the datamoshed video, in the way it takes advantage of the viewer's cinematic instinct, that fascinates me. And when I look up from the datamoshed video, blinking hard to make reality fall back into focus, the world makes a little more sense to my viewing, perceiving centre. To me reality feels more datamoshed every time I look up. To me the real world looks like it might have been datamoshed all along.

by Daniel Rourke

Videos featured in this article:

Silver by Takeshi Murata
Monster Movie by Takeshi Murata
Venetian Snares, Szamar Madar by David O'Reilly
• A backwards version of Chairlift, Evident Utensil, by Ray Tintori, encoded backwards by YouTube user PronoiacOrg
MishMosh, by YouTube user datamosher
Untitled (Pink Dot) by Takeshi Murata
How to Datamosh: Part 1, by YouTube user datamosher