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Curtain

Justin Harvey: Director, Producer, Researcher

Affiliation: University of Technology Sydney
Title of work: Curtain
Year: 2016
Length: 2 minutes and 2 seconds (seamless video loop)

RESEARCH STATEMENT

Curtain (2016) is one of a series of video artworks created by Justin Harvey through the shaping of digital video feedback loops using an iPhone camera, WI-FI network, and LED television. Video cameras convert light into an electronic (analogue) signal or digital string of data that can be transmitted to a video monitor. By turning the camera on its own output, a video feedback loop is instantiated.

Artists began to experiment with consumer video technology with the release of the Sony Portapak in 1967, as part of “a utopian impulse to refashion television” (Hanhardt 1990, 73). Artists including Nam June Paik, and Steina and Woody Vasulka, used video feedback in opposition to video’s use in broadcast television that presented the “feedback of feedback of information rather than asserting the implicit immediacy of video” (Korot and Gershuny 1970). By looping video back on itself, artists contravened the usual way video divides time into sequences, shots and frames, instead immersing viewers into the flow of time as described by Henri Bergson’s concept of duration (Bergson 2001).

Bergson equates the mechanism of our ordinary knowledge of the world with that of cinema, where “we place ourselves outside [things] in order to recompose their becoming artificially” (Bergson 1994, 332), but advocates for a second type of knowledge, in contrast to this cinematographical method, where “moments of time, which are only arrests of our attention, would no longer exist; it is the flow of time” (Bergson 1994, 372). By using a smartphone camera in contrast to its normal cinematographical use, Curtain substantiates this second type of knowledge through an immersive viewing experience of an indivisible flow of video-time. Consumer video technology has developed from the analogue Sony Portapak to digital smartphone cameras. The time of analogue television was assembled around ten-second commercial spots, in contrast to the time of digital social media, divisible into “Cost per 2-second Continuous Video Play” (Facebook 2020). Today, video divides time in ways Bergson could barely have imagined. Curtain extends the field of video feedback art to this purely digital context.

Whereas analogue video feedback results from a continuous looped electrical signal, a digital video feedback loop, instantiated over WIFI from smartphone to television and back again, consists of millions of packets of granularised information. These packets of information represent time broken up into innumerable pieces. Curtain was made through a counter intuitive move to freeze the granularised time of digital video feedback in still smartphone panoramas, and then return these still representations of strobing colour cycles to the flux of duration via postproduction techniques. Curtain contributes an experience of video-time as an indivisible flow of time in contrast to the division of time video would normally represent.

Curtain was selected for screening to audiences in the thousands in 2016 at Vivid Sydney, as a 17-channel large-scale public installation, and curated for “Op-Art”, at Brenda May Gallery in Sydney as a single channel edition. More recently, I exhibited Curtain in 2020 in my creative research solo show, “The Feedback Suite” at UNSW Black Box, Sydney.

PEER REVIEW 1

An attempt of decomposition of cinema (or what is well known as film/video) is a worthy goal for a filmmaker or artist interested in motion pictures, or motion capture using video, because we take for granted today that motion is captured by video, and its result is watched in a plain screen, especially with all this massive social video technology appropriation globally happening every second. Therefore, decomposition of that fact, that human technological routine, should be a more detailed exercise, showing if possible, surprising angles of that capturing-sharing exercise.

I think the lack of sound is a big omission, as the subtle movement of changing colour bars, totally muted, is puzzling. Again, if the intention of the submission is to approach a breakdown of moving picture production practices, the approach should have included more key elements of film and or video’s main features, like sound, or even subtle forms or shapes, like the one that could be appreciated in a Baird TV (a John Logie-Baird mechanical Television device) during the 1920s.

The submission has a research context that is used to justify the presented video. Video-art pieces of all kinds are plenty, more nowadays with social media apps like Vimeo, YouTube or TikTok. Of course, context video-art pieces are not that common in social media, but the innovation is the key difference, and coherence is even more exotic in art research, because it is needed to surprise viewers and rational thinking with originality; creativity as much in creation as in discussions originated from artwork. I think this submission is halfway to reach innovation in mentioned fields and is in good shape in terms of research and methodology, but is only a good start point.

If the intention of this project is to decompose video as a concept, or moving pictures as a cultural value, the result, the Vimeo video art, could explore more that main goal, to break down conceptually an idea. Video or film are cultural concepts well accepted globally as vehicles of motion expression, whereby the capture of motion is as important today as it was in the 19th century. Therefore, attached as other concepts around moving picture’s main one, like composition, inside action, sound in and out screen, colour, lack of colour, etc, could be a big research path to explore.

PEER REVIEW 2

Curtain is a visually engaging video with its presentation of the contrast between flickering vertical colour bar components and a more expanded shift in colour within the looped work as a whole. The changes in hue and the inherent timing presented on screen can be viewed with intent or can be experienced in a ‘distracted’ manner, where the durational element of the work is traced by the shifting colour balance across the screen over time.

Harvey locates his moving image work within a framework of experimental video that has its origins in the mid 1960s and he specifically draws upon the use of video feedback as a major formal and theoretical influence. Curtain is also discussed within the context of video art that has been made as a challenge to the cinematic conventions of narrative cinema. The counter position of the work to the ‘cinematographical method’ is well framed with reference to Bergson’s idea of the flow of time rather than its division into frames, shots, and sequences.

While the use of video feedback is referenced within the statement this also opens up the question about what has changed from the Sony Portapak to the iPhone. More could have been made of the development and popularisation of video feedback in the intervening years and the shift in theoretical and contextual thinking on the matter.

Although Harvey does mention the packeting of information and wifi transmission, some further reference to the differences between feedback from an analog signal, digital video, and digital effects would be useful. This would also show in more detail what is unique with the combination of camera, software and networked transmission that is possible with the iPhone. Providing more information on the shifts in technology would help differentiate Harvey’s explanation of how the video’s flow of time was created with the use of the iPhone’s panorama facility and the re-editing of the resulting ‘stills’ back into moving images. While recognising that the statement is not a description of process, at this point it is not clear where the emphasis on the video feedback element sits within the use of the iPhone’s panorama function. In setting up the key experience of the flow of time within the viewing of the work, a focus on whether it is the movement of the camera, to record a panoramic image, or the reworking of this in postproduction, would be useful.

Rosa Menkam (2011), for example, within her wider discussion of ‘glitch theory’ differentiates between glitches that are live and accidental, process driven, and those that are aesthetic reproductions of effects. By establishing the differences, she also then prioritises those moments within the glitch, often set in play through employing methods of feedback, that are live and unrepeatable (Menkman 2011).

Overall, the statement provides a good framework for locating the video within a tradition of work that has challenged a more conventional, cinematic experience of time and its representation on screen. The submission provides a very good example of practice as research. The video is innovative in that it not only frames the bigger issue of the experience of time but also shows how the use of the new technological features, such as the iPhone’s panorama facility can continue to reshape work to this end. The video work lives up to the potential described in the statement, and the emphasis on framing the viewing of this within the extended durational experience of time, differentiates the work from positions that deal with the materiality of the digital.

RESEARCHER RESPONSE

I am grateful for the reviewers’ thoughtful engagement with my work, particularly in relation to the experience of the work itself. In response I will offer a clarification of my intent with the research, further insight into the production process of Curtain, and more detail on how it works to contribute an experience of video-time as an indivisible flow. I have also adjusted the research statement to incorporate more relevant detail on the process of making the work.

For clarity, the intention of the work is not to decompose video as a concept as such, but to use it in contrast to the way it is most often used to divide time. Like the way clocks divide time into hours, minutes and seconds, video usually divides time into sequences, shots, and frames. With video, time can be segmented, reordered, and replayed ad infinitum, reinforcing the sense that time is divisible. With Curtain, I shape video feedback into abstract video artwork that aims to provoke an experience of time as indivisible in contrast to segments of lived duration that video usually presents. Curtain stands in opposition to the figurative and divisible tendencies afforded by consumer video technology in favour of evoking a durational abstract experience where it is difficult to differentiate one moment from the next.

Curtain was made by animating still panoramas captured from a direct video feedback loop using the iPhone camera application, WI-FI network and 42-inch LED television screen. The iPhone camera application was used in panorama mode, wherein the software samples the scene, stitching together each portion of the view to create a consistent whole. The process is a form of slit-scan processing where narrow image slices are stitched together to create images of stretched out time or compressed space. The automatic stitching works by matching pixels based on a range of variables, including colour, brightness, and contrast. To make the panoramas for Curtain a feedback loop was seeded with external light and both screens begin to strobe rapidly through imperceptible cycles of colour. The iPhone was dragged across the screen, producing ‘glitched’ panoramas that present a succession of different coloured lines of varying width that bleed into each other as the camera attempted to stitch each colour in the strobing cycle into one continuous image.

Curtain is the result of layering a selection of the stills over one another and applying transition effects to each successive overlap in After Effects, creating movement, to which I applied colour enhancement, gaussian blur and refraction effects. The combination and layering of these effects resulted in the highly ordered arrangement of lines in the final work. Curtain reclaims the succession of strobing colour fields of the original feedback loop that were beyond human perception. The panoramic snapshots are returned to motion: blurred, stretched, and divided into hundreds of segments in constant flux. In this way Curtain presents a paradox of sorts, as even though there are multiple divisions within the frame, the constant change between and among them renders the viewer unable to identify with any distinct present moment within the work. From Bergson’s perspective the present is not a point in time but rather an action or reaction, a movement that forms part of the feedback loop of conscious experience. Curtain works to question the possible existence of discrete present moments within our conscious experience, thereby arguing for the indivisibility of time.

The cumulative experience of viewing Curtain is ultimately intended to evoke the consistency of change that belongs to our conscious experience of time, in the hope of provoking an awareness of duration, where futures are contingent and open to creative novelty. At the very least it may draw viewers into the movement of light that becomes a metaphor for the temporal continuity of lived consciousness.

REVISED RESEARCH STATEMENT

Curtain (2016) is one of a series of video artworks created by Justin Harvey through the shaping of digital video feedback loops using an iPhone camera, WI-FI network, and LED television. Video cameras convert light into an electronic (analogue) signal or digital string of data that can be transmitted to a video monitor. By turning the camera on its own output, a ‘direct’ video feedback loop is instantiated.

Artists began to experiment with analogue consumer video technology with the release of the Sony Portapak in 1967, as part of “a utopian impulse to refashion television” (Hanhardt 1990, 73). Artists including Nam June Paik, and Steina and Woody Vasulka, used video feedback in opposition to video’s use in broadcast television that presented “feedback of feedback of information rather than asserting the implicit immediacy of video” (Korot and Gershuny 1970). By looping video back on itself, artists contravened the usual way video divides time into sequences, shots and frames, instead immersing viewers into the flow of time as described by Henri Bergson’s concept of duration (Bergson 2001).

Bergson equates the mechanism of our ordinary knowledge of the world with that of cinema, where “we place ourselves outside [things] in order to recompose their becoming artificially” (Bergson 1994), but advocates for a second type of knowledge, in contrast to this cinematographical method, where “moments of time, which are only arrests of our attention, would no longer exist; it is the flow of time” (Bergson 1994). By using a smartphone camera in contrast to its normal cinematographical use, Curtain substantiates this second type of knowledge through an immersive viewing experience of an indivisible flow of video-time. In this way, Harvey extends the field of video feedback art to a purely digital context.

Whereas analogue video feedback results from a continuous looped electrical signal, a digital video feedback loop, instantiated over WIFI from smartphone to television and back again, consists of millions of packets of granularised information. In this way, video divides time in ways Bergson could barely have imagined, these packets of information representing time broken up into innumerable pieces. Curtain was made through a counter-intuitive move to freeze the granularised time of digital video feedback in still smartphone panoramas, where a smartphone is dragged across the rapidly strobing colour fields of video feedback on the television screen.  These still representations of perceptually indivisible video feedback loops were then returned to the flux of duration via postproduction techniques including the application of transitions, blurring, and refraction effects. Curtain contributes an experience of video-time as an indivisible flow of time in contrast to the division of time video would normally represent.

Curtain was selected for screening to audiences in the thousands in 2016 at Vivid Sydney, as a 17-channel large-scale public installation, and curated for “Op-Art”, at Brenda May Gallery in Sydney as a single channel edition. More recently, I exhibited Curtain in 2020 in my creative research solo show, “The Feedback Suite” at UNSW Black Box, Sydney.

 

REFERENCES

Bergson, Henri. 1994. Creative Evolution. Translated by Arthur Mitchell. New York: Random House.

Bergson, Henri. 2001. Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. Translated by F. L. Pogson. New York: Dover.

Facebook for Business: Business Help Center. 2023. “About Video Ad Metrics.” Facebook. Accessed August 6, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/business/help/1792720544284355?id=603833089963720.

Hanhardt, John G. 1990. “Dé-collage/Collage: Notes Toward a Reexamination of the Origins of Video Art.” In Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, edited by Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer, 71–79. New York: Aperture/BAVC. 

Korot, Beryl and Phyllis Gershuny. 1970. “Address to Readers.” Radical Software 1 (1).  https://www.radicalsoftware.org/e/volume1nr1.html.

Menkman, Rosa. 2011. The Glitch Moment(um). Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures. https://doi.org/10.25969/mediarep/19296.

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