Fear of the Abstract

In the Void of the Tele-Audio-Visual

unpublished catalogue essay for Synthetics, Power Museum, Sydney, 1998
Home Shopping Channel (c.1985); The Thing (1981)

I'm in a hotel in Washington DC, Christmas 1983. Right near the airport, a 26 storey building in the middle of a wasteland of vacant industrial lots. I'm in room 2609. A great view of nothing. The TV is on the televending cable channel. The screen is divided into a dizzy configuration of boxes, frames, close-ups, text scrolls, flashing icons, superimposed logos. It's a map on the verge of disorienting its own territories due to its desire to convey maximum data, with full impact at every second. All hierarchical reading structure is vanquished as the screen is terrorized by the impossible amount of information it must contain and impart.

The more I intake this overload, the more abstract it becomes.

That cheap diamond glistening under studio lights shimmers, wavering somewhere between cathode ray phosphorescence and scan line approximation. The striped tie the host wears vibrates in a fluctuating rainbow of RGB hue. The horizontal panning and vertical scrolling of the innumerable text fields play havoc with my persistence of vision. Sometimes the text flickers like a strobe light; other times the serifs create a visual rhythm which render the text all but illegible. Colours clash, vibrate, bleed in that most alien of colour fields: the televisual palette.

The sound is turned down. But '0' volume level of the monitor's speaker is but a pale denominator. A series of microtonal timbrel shifts audibly modulate the room's electrical ground hum in synch with the change of luminous content on the screen matrix. That low noise grind that tells you you're in a hotel room watching cable. A hum that speaks of bad wiring, electrical interference, and data overload as 26 floors of valued guests are spinning out watching the same televending channel. I can play harmonics with the base tone by turning up the fader on my bedside lamp.

Add American air-conditioning and the mere smell of take-out pizza from the room next door and you have the kind of synaesthetic trip that 60s drugs championed and 90s interactivity touts. Cable inadvertently created a strange phenomenon by the end of the 70s: a pure abstraction of the tele-audio-visual apparatus through mechanisms designed to present hardcore info-data. The weather channels. The stock market channels. The racing channels. The channel that tells what's on your channel later. The channel that tells you what's on every channel simultaneously. 'Affordable' technologies servicing consumer demands for 'knowing' about something. Anything. Everything.

Poltergeist (1981); Congo (1996)

Synchronous with the burgeoning Video Art scenes around the world, the tele-audio-visual apparatus was attaining a genealogical identity predicated on abstraction despite whatever content was being artificially injected into its corpus. The televending phenomenon achieved (albeit under its peculiar terms) the same height of non-narrative/anti-linear/meta-visual abstraction that Video Art sought to generate through taking the massage out of the medium and returning it to a chronically mis-representational state. This is not to say one manifestation of video is superior to the other, but rather that their pursuits in abstraction are parallel strategies. The vital germ of the experimental arts - a small but important one - is its dogged and dogmatic pursuit of any mechanisms which confound the illusory, corrupt the manipulative and destabilize the referential. Abstraction is both the means and the state which much electronic experimentalism explores. To its detriment, this is often done with an 'acultural' attitude - as if by ignoring the media spectrum of suspect and susceptible manipulations a pure or total art is guaranteed. Fact is, the most intensely 'informative' media exposes its own abstraction by default, and should therefore be accordingly acknowledged for its effects. Video Art - despite some of its oppositional aims - was committed to generating an experience whose rigour and purity matched the bluntness and relentlessness of televending's consumer void. In Jonathan Kaplan's OVER THE EDGE (1979) a 10 year old kid wears sunglasses, drops LSD and watches the test pattern after midnight. Not so drug-inspired, I used to watch TV snow as a kid and get heady from my optical muscles creating swirling spiral patterns on the screen while being enveloped in white noise. There is something attractive, hypnotic, entrancing, seductive, numbing about the TV screen - something in its radiance of multifarious waveforms, its subliminal rhythmic pulsations. It's a form of base interactivity which Interactivity (capital 'I') thinks it can narrate, illustrate, eventuate - but to which it can only bring grandiose techno-claims of reinventing the screen. Video Art - especially the synthetic, abstract variants - exhibited moments of incisiveness, creating - sometimes unintentionally - fissures of existential pondering in the face of incomprehensible audio-visuality. This state - an art void, if you will - has always shared an uncomfortable relation to the consumer stupor which breeds within the haunting ambience of shopping mall culture. A dimension where piped music, disembodied voices and glowing monitors in multiple configurations collectively beam a distilled tele-audio-visuality to create a sensory environment wherein the air is alive and walls flicker. Both the Fine and Electronic Arts panic when their distance from such terrains becomes blurred or non-apparent. But whereas Abstract Expressionism created a half century of bland, stifling Bank Art, the tele-audio-visual apparatus which landscapes the most alienating of our infotainment surroundings also created Video Art. Such an Art/Culture nexus is rare.

The intensity of abstraction when in front of the screen can be transcendental. Video tapes of burning fireplaces. Cable TV broadcasts of fish tanks. Clothes stores with music video clips on video walls. Electronics stores with store-front monitors showing what happens in the front of their store. Train station security cameras relaying platform activity on clusters of monitors. Bank TVs playing their TV ads with the sound turned down. Perfume counters running POD snippets looped on small monitors. Aeroplane monitors in flight showing you how far you are from where you will be. 3 frame animations playing on an ATM screens to show you your cash coming out. All suggest that information is being conveyed - but all can just as easily make you lose sense of time and place and forget what you thought you were watching.

The TV screen's propensity for abstraction can be equally traumatic. Parents dread it and set time limits on its intake. Teachers decry it and ban kids from drawing TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES in art class (true story). But nowhere is its traumatizing effect more apparent than in the cinema - that archaic machine of chemical glistening and gilded story-telling. Optically-biased film people love that big white screen and its porous softness. They get wet watching the planetary surface of grain which swims before their eyes. It's their abstract trip - but they insist on filtering it through a range of humanist discourses so that the experience is rendered relevant, social, meaningful. Film people will cry until the next millennium about video's rape of the filmic grain, streaming its minutiae of texture along zapping scan lines and through ungainly pixels. Tres photographique. Quelle 19th Century. The 'charm' of cinema disguises an ontological xenophobia wherein the photographic is pornographically pawed over, while the tele-visual is akin to the toxic day-glo plastic wrappers of hi-carbo chocolate bars. (It goes without saying that the coffee-table cine-bourgeois who wax lyrically over 'beautiful images' have zero understanding of the sonic.

The power of video - as a medium, as a phenomenon, as a virus - is its ability to voice with deafening clarity the precepts of modernism (newness) and postmodernism (non-uniqueness). As cinema slowly degenerated into an enclave of 'beauty in a world gone mad', it degenerated into the most rudimentary ruts of representation: the painterly, the textural, the elegiac, the symbolic. Video became the ugly teenage mutant offspring. With phosphorescence for pubescence and algorithms for acne, video eschewed cinema's formal visual codes for a net of phenomenological fragments which belched synthesized images and sounds born of electrical current traversing electronic circuitry. And like the archetypal dirty punk daughter of university lecturers, video wore ugliness as both a self-inflicted affiliation with the abject and as a sign of aesthetic otherness. Its aesthetic qualities were noticeable and undeniable: the illegality of red; the fuzzy chromo-key outline; the splotchy patches of down stream keying; the flagrant declaration of its newness and its non-uniqueness. This was first degree Video: it looked like nothing else, and what it had was often presumed to be things neither it nor anyone actually wanted. It was and remains hardcore ugly.

This presumption - akin to the belief that the punk daughter will settle down and have kids anyway - created a second degree Video: that of the rasterized anti-aliased screen surface. A surface which declares I may be video, but I can be painterly, textural, elegiac, symbolic. Like, I am abstract but I am capable of great representational effects. I can emulate biological form; I can move with quaint Muybridge affection; I can render globules of sweat on the skin of an endangered species; I can make things go out of focus. This bastard video tries to act historical and learned, but it remains an effete figure hiding behind an aesthetic visage produced by the gross techno-steroids which are transforming all applications of Electronic Art into artless 'state-of-the-art' statements.

Benny's Video (1991); Trespass (1992)

In Frank Marshall's CONGO (1996) a whole pile of dumb humans dress in dumb ape suits and interface with a whole mass of 'smart' (not) technologies. Just like in those IBM ads where research grant dudes deep in some South American rain forest (no doubt saving mankind as we knew it) use portable ariels on their lap tops to connect to the Internet and download information about dangerous snakes. (Like, why not do your research before you get there?) CONGO - advertised as "an event-packed adventure filled with state-of-the-art technology and primal fear" - fetishizes the relay and exchange of data and information like a yippie who read too much McLuhan too late and now runs an Information Technology business. Screens upon screens upon screens fill up the cinematic screen, in an attempt to create that desirable 'information overload' effect - but coming nowhere near my Washington hotel experience of watching the televending cable channel. Typical of so many cruddy over-designed 90s techno films (the trash cinema for future generations), the televisual is invited into the cinematic realm, as cinema desperately tries to survive as a medium with identity. But equally typical of 90s style mergers, no genuine mutation occurs. Only a kind of ontological fattening. 'State-of-the-art' technologies at the service of the cinema continue the second degree video effect: a denial of its synthetics, a refusal of its artificialism, a co-option of its abstraction.

Despite the 90s trumpeting 'special effects' as a panacea for the ailing corpus of cinema, little is appreciated about how virally integrated the tele-audio-visual apparatus became to that very same corpus. The 80s witnessed video govern film post-production - particular sound posting. The filmic standard of 24fps was altered to 25fps in consideration of the video monitor's scan line rate. SMPTE time code became a primary means of sound synchronization in post-production facilities. Sound was designed, edited and mixed to video telecines. In short, once the wrap party had finished and all the chauvinist men and women in black leather jackets and baseball caps ('the industry') moved on to another 'show', the mole people in darkened post production studios worked video technologies like the cleaning crew at Disneyland: invisibly, silently, unknowingly. Therein grew the first wave of true high-fidelity surround sound design, where an amazing array of analogue and digital audio technologies outlaid the algorithmic templates which visual digital technologies would employ throughout the 90s. A decade of recording, sampling and MIDI applications predates and defines what many term the 'digital era' of scanning, bit-mapping, rendering, compositing and animating.

In short, cinema was infected by the tele-audio-visual a long time ago. John Carpenter's THE THING (1981) alludes to what cinema would become. Holed up in his cabin in the Antarctic, Kurt Russell plays computer chess on a lo-res screen - and loses all the time. He later uses the same computer screen to simulate the rate of alien infection among his crew. The cinema screen engulfs an extreme close-up of lo-res giant pixels as PAC MAN-style computer graphics simulate infection, assimilation and simulation. Narrative probability and biological certainty are conveyed not through any grand operatic mise-en-scene, but through the harsh and unforgiving abstraction of the computer screen. Similar scenes increase in number and complexity, from Ridley Scott's ALIEN (1979) and Michael Radleigh's WOLFEN (1981) through to John McTiernan's PREDATOR and Paul Verhoven's ROBOCOP (both 1987). The Other is depicted via radar scans, ocular disfiguration, thermal readings, optical de-rendering - anything but standard photochemical processes. The 'look' of the other in cinema is tele-visual.

While the 90s saw cinema use of battery of high-end (an 80s term also used in drug trafficking and MIAMI VICE) computer technologies to mat, move and mobilize digitized data and make it behave cinematically, the video grain persisted as an interference and rupture into the seamless post-produced world that remains entirely unconvincing in JURASSIC PARK, THE MASK, TWISTER, INDEPENDENCE DAY, LOST IN SPACE, GODZILLA and so many other SGI-trumpeted affairs. Films like BENNY'S VIDEO (1991), TRESPASS (1992) and MENACE II SOCIETY (1993) employ close-up video grain for hyper-realist narrative purpose - not to illusorily fuse with the cinematic, but to scratch, sear and scar its homogenised surface. 'Hyper realist' not in any essential sense, but simply as a signifier of immediacy: the finished gloss of 'the movies' - even 'gritty'-styled ones - is always a dimension away from me, a realm removed. Video, on the other hand, is in my face, on my retinas, at my fingertips every day. Its pixilated terrain commandeers my field of vision more than the sky or ground. This is no big deal that requires a WIRED-style pompous pronouncement. It's just the stuff that's around me. Cinema's flirtation with the video grain - zooming in too close on those pixels, abstracting strange acts of sex and violence - touches the skin of my eye and reminds me of the less-than-grand void which I inhabit daily.

I'm in a Tabaret pokie bar in Melbourne, Easter 1998. I'm with a whole pile of dumb humans dressed in dumb human suits. The carpet is loud, the walls are invisible, the music is pungent, the air is fetid, the light is deafening. I'm tripping. The monitors - Amigas - are first degree video. Hard, biting RGB surfaces. Reduced palettes, iconic illustrations, mega-lo-res. The sounds are a mix of low-bit samples and low-memory digital synthesis, coldly burning my eardrums like dry ice on flesh. No second degree soothing here. Just hardcore ugly servicing a sublime existentialism that allows you to throw money away for no real reason at all. Tabaret pokies - the Target chain to the Casino's David Jones centrality - create a tele-audio-visual drone whose hyperactive brilliance withholds the ultimate of screen voids. Televending requires a phone call and a credit card number. Poker machines merge the pornographic act of consumption with the physical act of handing over money. Men and women sit jerking off the machine, hoping to get it to orgasm and spew back whatever they put into it. The screen visuals reduce iconography to a viciously hypnotic abstraction of colours and movements, somewhere between the flashing of neon logos, the rotating of lenticular billboards and the spinning of roadside signs. Kinetics of machine and human become one.

Predator (1987); Galaga (1981)

The more I observe this kineticism, the more abstract it becomes.

Fear of the abstract terrorizes social intercourse and discourse. All words, images, sounds, colours, smells are forced to communicate with purpose and intent. But why fear the abstract? Why fight becoming a zombie in front of the tele-audio-visual screen? Why cling so pathetically to one's authorial voice and the delusion of communication? As if you're some transformed ape in a tacky movie like Stanley Kubrick's 2001 (1969), enlightened through consciousness and the realization of a higher plane of existence, gravitating to representationalism as a demonstration of your linguistic pre-occupation to understand, uncover, comprehend. Video's hyper-abstraction - from its tingling screen to its sub harmonic drone - can be as powerful an experience as any nature has to offer when one contemplates its essential qualities.

The more this is ignored, the more aggressively we get the Revenge of the Lo-Res. Only square nightclubs project SGI-computer animations as if they are a sign of some technologically advanced civilization. In typical 303 and 808 style, cool clubs have PAC MAN, SPACE INVADERS and GALAGA. Even Microsoft tries to be hip by simulating large-pixel screen wipes similar to those on old Fairlight Video Synthesizers, while Bowie's HEROES (1977) phase-shifts across the sound field. Sure - it's all retro design cliche, but it is nonetheless a reaction against the anti-tele-audio-visual textures which attempt to soften our gaze and sublimate our look into a deluded world of representational effects. In the Lo-Res, there can be no pretence to anything but abstraction.

In between watching spiral patterns on TV noise as a kid, I recall being told that in the future we would be living on the moon and riding dune buggies to school. Instead I've got Microsoft asking me "Where do you want to go to today?" and delivering me crappy J-PEGS of the rings of Saturn. On my monitor they look like old skool Video Art.

The more I stare at it, the more abstract it all becomes.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.