C A R O L   G O S S



Why Abstraction?
Romanticism - Formalism
Realism - Abstraction





Painting, music, theatre and poetry all joined together in the past hundred years to help form the cinema.  Each of these art forms had its individual ancient history prior to this collaboration.  Each of these histories ranged between various forms of formalism and romanticism.  With the advent of cinema, however, each of these forms have been captured in a romantic
freeze frame.

The visual aesthetic of the cinema, so beautifully elucidated in Anne Hollander's The Moving Image, has been modeled primarily on the work of Northern European artists, such as Durer, Vermeer, etc.  The romantic world of shadow, innuendo and "realism" has monopolized the motion picture screen to the exclusion of the southern formalist paintng aesthetic - flat, fully lit, "abstract" painters like Fra Angelico and Picasso.

2 D animation early on pursued classical formalist concepts of composition and color.  Animators such as Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, and Oskar Fishinger were all abstract modernist painters experimenting in cell animation. They often described their animations as "visual music".  These early innovators were isolated and without commercial support. Early on the forceful flat fields of 2 D animation were dominated by "characters" in burlesque scenarios: cartoons.  The word "cartoon" means sketch.  It is what Michaelangelo drew on paper, then taped to the ceiling, punched holes in the paper where the outlines of the figures were, and completed the fresco by "filling in" the outline.  Exactly the same process used in traditional cell animation.

During the eighty years of cinema that preceded video, beginning with Paul Emile Reynaud's celluloid Praxinoscope in 1888 to the introduction of video tape in 1968, animation was filled with thousands of still pictures which had to be created one at a time, and then "animated".

Videotape was used primarily the way film had been: i.e. to document reality. It was impossible for traditional animators to use video.  There was no way to record one frame at a time.  Video had other properties, however, which led to painterly applications never before imagined.  In fact, in the late 1960s and early 1970s video art emerged as the first recorded form for the creation of moving art images in real time.

It was not a perfect world. Video was a live electrical current, not a flat piece of celloid.  It couldn't be related to as "paper", the way a "cell" could in traditional animation, where flat artwork was photographed. Visual artists had to adapt to the characteristics of video.  Because video was "real time" and you could alter aspects of the image and see the changes as they were made, certain "synthesizers" were designed to give artists access to parameters of the image: contrast, color saturation, luminosity, etc.

The word synthesizer is a very telling word.  It means "to put together a complex whole; to make up by combination or parts or elements" (Oxford English Dictionary).  Yet is stems from the word "synthetic", which has meanings perceived by many as derrogatory: "artificially produced, man-made" or alternatively "false, sham" (Cassell Compact Dictionary).

Born into a world of institutionalized cinema aesthetics, wrapped in the vocabulary of "synthesis" or "processed", video art was handicapped from the beginning.  Add to this the timing of its debut, the beginning of Post-Modernist era, and it is truly amazing that painterly video art has had so many adherents.

The period of analog video synthesis was just short enough to only have registered with about two generations.  Margaret Meade, the anthropologist, said that it takes three generations to pass on a culture.  Fortunately, there now is a new generation of media artists, educated in digital tools, that are curious about their analog predecessors.

Video art, made with synthesizers, freed the artist to use a color palette ranging from 0-100 (the whole video spectrum), to fade in and out of several moving images, to insert parts of one moving image into another.  Magritte had presaged many of these techniques.  His Venetian blind painting of the horse in the forest could just as well have been keyed in via video.  In fact, the "blinds" have long been a staple wipe on video switchers.

The artist could revisit any palette in art history by simply altering the colors of the moving subjects at will.  One could go from Rembrandt's somber browns to the brilliant saturated colors of the Fauve's.  The cathode ray tube does tend to favor blue over red.  In fact, the unique video palette was one more point of contention in a film centered aesthetic.

Abstract imaging, which gives pure play to formal pursuits, was limited by the analog nature of the synthesizers and camera.  Early techniques of creating images from oscillators and the light of the CRT itself led artists into an intimate relationship with the screen.  This early video art was an extension of modern painting.  My first programs "Topography" and "Rings" related to color field and minimalist painting respectively.  Limitations are often creative incentives.  The irony at that time was that video artists were pursuing modernist images while the rest of the art world was rejecting modernism.

The screen was highly compelling.  Realism was of no interest.  Realism was false, and synthesis was true.  Relating to the live video signal, allowing it to be pure and unpolluted by the pretense that there were bodies or landscapes on the screen was an unspoken credo for some of us.  It must also be admitted that sitting 18 inches from a CRT induces a different relationship with the images than sitting 10 feet away.  No doubt there are scientific papers describing the trance affect that the scanning of the beam in the CRT has on the human optic system.  This subliminal scanning coupled with the iterations of feedback and the rhythms of oscillators all induced a meditative state. In this sense video art more resembled music than it did cinema.

Perhaps the one aspect of certain forms of electronic motion imaging that has been most overlooked is the fact that these moving images can be made in real time.  Throughout the 1970s and most of the 1980s analog video synthesizers were the only tools that provided realtime control of moving images.  The Amiga computer from 1984 onward allowed artists to stream full screen and frame rate uncompressed analog video through digital processors without any rendering time.  To this day programmers on other platforms are still struggling with the code to accomplish this!

The implications of realtime imaging are far more important than they are given credit for.  Art making is a time-based activity.  When a painter works on a canvas one element leads to the next. There is a constant process of assessment, inclusion, and elimination.  The nature of the work is always before the painter as the work cummulatively evolves.  Film animators were forced to work blind. Their medium was motion imaging, but they wouldn't see the motion until the film was developed and printed.  Digital animators fare slightly better.  3D people can view wireframe previews of their work, but they still must wait long periods for animated segments to render before they can relate to the true nature of what they are doing.

Electronic motion imaging that responds and displays immediately is universally the ideal.  Choices are made, as they are in music, from moment to moment as the need arises.  Great music composition is an act of improvisation.  Both Mozart and Chopin improvised their pieces first and then transcribed them.  Motion imaging tools that allow the artist to improvise are to be cherished.

The omnipresence of realism in cinema and digital motion imaging is often assumed as a given.  Computer animation of the 1980s addressed the same pixels and screen as did the analog video art of the 1970s, but with different motives.  Work done by analog video artists was spurred purely by experimentation.  Computer animation was highly manipulatable.  Early work was greatly influenced by commercial interests in the advertising industry.  It was possible to plan precise outcomes with computer animation, which lent itself to product promotion.

From the beginning computer animation became equatable with 3D, which in turn became equatable with heightened realism.  Just as 2D animation became almost exclusively associated with a flat, linear style of drawing, 3D has become associated with hyper realism.  In fact, the aesthetic driving 3D computer animation is to have form and surface become imperceptable from cinematic realism.  To a great extent this goal has been reached.  Interestingly though, in both cases, these outcomes are arbitrary except for the economic factors driving them: children's images for cartoons and product simulation for computer animation.

What are the implications of a visual art form striving only for realism?  Realism implies narrative and narrative requires linear thinking.  One could argue that under these circumstances the visual exists solely to further the plot or explicate the thesis.  The plot or thesis springs fully formed, not from the optic nerve of an artist, but from the mind of a writer.  The animator or video artist is then but a servant of a script.

The dethroning of the writer is the real revolution of abstract and non-narrative motion imaging.  Everyone in Hollywood has a "script", not a portfolio.  Instrumental music can be abstract, but when it is brought into the service of a script it becomes background" or "sound effects".  The fate of the visual arts in mainstream media culture has been similar.  How many films have you seen where the opening titles have been the best part?  The only creative part? "Special effects" is the category used for the creative visual arts in cinema and television.

Singular outcomes are not intrinsic to particular technologies.  We have the exception to the rule of romantic realism in cinema - the surrealists: Cocteau and Jadorowsky, as well as animators like Richter and Eggeling, to name a few.  Overwhelmingly though, economics have dictated artistic form in motion imaging in the 20th. century.  As Hollywood has dominated film, Disney has dominated animation, and Rhythm & Hues or Pixar type houses have dominated 3D.

The popular culture is driven by stories, actually mythological and folk stories according to rock singer David Bowie.  Bowie is an expert at reinventing himself for each new project.  His "characters" are associated with implied "stories" rooted deep in western culture.  But these are very old stories, and he claims there are only a few of them.  Artists are interested in having information revealed to them. The process of artmaking is one of discovery, not pedantry.  Realtime motion imaging gives artists the same kind of freedom to tap the unconscious that painters have.  These "revealed" images then become part of the culture and are slowly understood over time.  They will never be discovered if the work has to be planned, plotted, justified, and rationalized in advance.

An art form, and an artist for that matter, that is fortunate enough to escape cooption by the marketplace still has the opportunity to explore all latent possibilities.  Electronic motion imaging is in its infancy.  Each new new visual art form tends to revisit the forms of its predecessors on its own terms.

Copyright Carol Goss 2000
 
 


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