Critical Approaches to Culture + Communications

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 23 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

VideoSpace/Video Time: The Electronic Image as Found Object

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As with the appearance of most new technologies in the last twenty years extensive claims have been made for the technology which I will discuss in this paper. If the popular media are in any way a harbinger of the attitudes which our society takes to its new inventions, then the last decade in particular has seen hundreds of pieces on the importance and impact of video. From the VCR to the Camcorder, from the role of video recorders in the home to the impact of video stores on everyday life, there have been an endless flow of prognostications and evaluations, compounded by poll taking and symptomatic readings of video as a signpost for changes in the social fabric of advanced as well as developing countries.

All of these assessments (not limited to the popular press but also suffusing a variety of journals, television shows and public policy reports) have concerned themselves with the impact of video on the public at large. They have been guided by a set of presumptions about viewing, images and truth, the role of video as a window onto the world, its special qualities and potential as an artistic and political device and most importantly as an innovative technology. The concept of innovation is crucial to the way in which the medium has been understood and the way in which it has been historicized — a modern and postmodern emphasis on the new. (The phenomena of evaluation of new technologies by the media themselves — reached its peak with Nightline which recently featured an extended documentary entitled, Revolution in a Box. Ted Koppel narrated the changes which both television and portable video have produced.)

When new technologies appear they are accompanied by written and verbal texts which help create public spaces through which various types of discourse are exchanged and debated. The articulation of change, the evaluation of shifts in norms, the assessment of impact, is the for the most situated in a complex environment of discursive expositions. These grow out of and contribute to the formation of communities of people both inside and outside of institutions who sustain and creatively engage with the construction of codified meanings as they relate to the new technology. They help form its social, economic and cultural role within the society at large.

Often, the metaphors which underly this process promote the idea that machines are somehow able to outstrip their progenitors and their users. The negotiation of change circles around this paradox. Subjects, agents, the people who use new technologies are placed into the position of respondants, as if their discourse will inevitably be transcended by the technology. A rearguard struggle is then fought with the technology. An effort is made to humanize the machine though its history is of course, the result of human intervention and creativity. What is at stake here is the degree to which the machine can be conceptualized as being in the control of humans. The idea that the machine is more powerful than the people who created it confers an even greater sense of strength onto the technology. This conferral has had an impact on the institutions designed to respond to and solidify the usefulness of technological innovation.

The shaping of this paradox has influenced the way in which video technologies have been used and understood since the invention of the porta-pack in the 1960's. Many of the claims for the porta-pack, including its ability to create new venues for communications and creativity, suggest at one and the same time that the machine sees what the eye cannot, or is able to observe what people themselves tend to leave out. This foreground- background problem, the relative play of surfaces and the relativistic assumptions which follow, are synthesized in Marshall McLuhan's proposal that electronic images are not like the images which preceded them. And while this argument has some strength to it (photography and television are not the same, though they share similar concerns) any suggestion that the electronic image shows what the eye cannot see, leaves out the question of who is doing the seeing. It also transforms the technology into an autonomous vehicle with a set of formal concerns which are not derived from the pragmatic context into which the technology is placed. The early idealization of the porta-pack as a vehicle for change is in part situated in this elevation of the formal into an ontological category.(i)

The Sony Corporation came out with the first low-priced portable videotape recorder in 1966, the CV-2000. It cost $800, used a one-half inch reel to reel tape and recorded in black and white. Many claims have been made for this moment and it would be unfair not to characterize it as revolutionary.

Clearly, the criterea used to evaluate the shifts depend on the historiographic model in place, on the presumptions about what came before and what came after. If the porta-pack initiated an era of community video and helped propel the idea of individuals taking the medium into their own hands onto centre stage, it also suggested that the instrument was somehow responsible for opening up channels of communication which had not existed beforehand. This tied into notions of consumer culture, of the relationship between low or mass culture and high culture. Portable video was part of mass culture but also allowed for if not encouraged experimentation at an artistic level. In both instances the perceived aggressor was broadcast television which was seen as a vehicle for passivity and exclusivity. In large measure then, the idea that portable video was part of major change was set against the backdrop of broadcast media. “As early as 1958 Wolf Vostell created an environment containing a television screen surrounded by barbed wire. In 1963 he exhibited a group of damaged, dirty television sets — in a symbolic act of aggression against the mass media — while Nam June Paik concentrated on deviations intrinsic to the media, displaying thirteen malfunctionings of the electronic image, simultaneously.” (ii)

This emphasis on the difference between portable video technology and broadcast media has continued until the present day. For my purposes what is important here is how we situate the discussion around innovation and historical change. If the ‘other’ so to speak was television, then the history to be written must take into account the rather complex set of attitudes which characterized the way in which television became a fundamental part of North American culture from the early fifties until the mid-sixties. The particular form then of porta-pack television needs to be evaluated in the light of broadcast and mainstream media. Care must be taken in discussing the effects of portable technologies upon users and viewers. The evaluative tools which we have for examining how these technologies have been appropriated cannot simply be reduced to an instance of the technology itself and while it is true that hundreds of groups started to use video in the late 1960's and and early 1970's that, by itself, does not suggest very much. Nor should too many radical conclusions be drawn from the widespread use of camcorders today. This should encourage as much latitude as possible in examining evaluative tools best suited to a medium like video.

The sense one gets is that the ongoing creation of new technologies is inevitable and desirable. Each innovation has its own problems and successes, but each fits into the broader and more generalized notion of progress through the creation of capital and employment and the generation of profit and more leisure time. The circularity of this argument is not dissimilar to the way in which machines themselves operate. The key here is the notion of inevitability — the predictable result of the mechanics of repetition. An efficient machine will repeat itself ad infinitum. It has been created to do specific things. But what if this specificity is an illusion? The machine no longer represents its own activities — outstripped as it were by the unpredictable agents who make use of it. In video, the reaction to this contradiction has been to make the cameras more and more automatic, as well as smaller. Consequently, the machine effaces itself only to remain in control at a more sophisticated and less accessible level. The technology of automatic focus for example, cannot be altered unless the user turns to an override and makes the focus manual. Even the terms here suggest a greater accuracy to the automatic eye than to the human one. This, despite the fact that the electronics have been created in response to a particular concept of sight. Watching a television is not the same as looking through the eyepiece of a camera, but in both cases a paradigm is at work. The difficulty is discerning whether the model in question has been produced through the technology or as a result of the complex and often contradictory assumptions which constitute the subjective process of seeing.

I am concerned with the relationship between the history of a technology and popular and academic assumptions about how that technology can be used. I am also concerned with presumptions of impact and various hypotheses about change as they are refracted through the shifting parameters of technological growth and innovation. To what degree, for example, does the appearance of video coincide with the desire to enlarge the market for electronic goods? Does this explain the rapid acceptance of the medium by many different sectors of our society? Do the camcorder and the palmcorder presage an historical shift in the way in which electronic images will be watched and understood? If we go back to Sony's invention of the half-inch black and white porta-pack will we be able to delineate the social, cultural and economic factors which contextualised the appearance of this new technology? In retrospect it now seems clear that Sony was setting the stage for the VCR having made the judgement that spectators would eventually want to control their own viewing patterns and also place their faith in the electronic image in much the same way as they had with still photographs.(iii)

Why was the Sony Corporation able to anticipate this? Why did an American firm, the Ampex Corporation, which had invented video recorders in 1955 ten years before Sony introduced the porta-pack, not grab the opportunity in the same way? Why did the JVC Company in Japan choose the VHS format over Betamax (a superior technology) and thus quickly marginalize Sony's role in the first years of VCR development, even though Sony had been in the forefront some years earlier? These are questions which this paper will not necessarily be able to answer but they are part of a history which needs to be developed in any discussion of video.

There is a “history” which can perhaps account for the new circuits of communication which have been put in place by the advent of video. In particular one would have to develop an analysis of the democratization process as more and more people become comfortable with video as a device in the home. The link then, between the technology as a structure of possibilities and its location within a postmodern context in which new kinds of histories are being created in rather unlinear ways and the discourse which can express these developments, is in need of revision.

At first blush it appears as if video permits a massive set of variables to be introduced into a world of endless disjunctures where there is no clear or level playing field for the construction and maintenance of specific meanings. Yet it may be the case that as more and more electronic images are created for very specific contexts, that the fragmentation will allow for an interchangeable flux of meanings to be sustained by hitherto undescribed modes of linkage. The discursive crisis being put in place can be thought of this way. If John Wayne can be digitally reconstituted using old film footage in order to play a new role in a video-fiction, then there is nothing to prevent the development of a home system designed to save, in digital form, the image of dead relatives. Enough variables can be introduced into these digital reconstructions to allow families to “talk” to their relatives as if the “dead” have something new to say. This is a system which need not be governed by conventional notions of predictablility. It may not even evolve into a system. But the point must be made that to imagine such a possibility itself introduces variables to the processes of exchange between communication
and the imaginary, to the relationship between language and thought. It also alters the very nature of fiction and may suggest radically new ways of thinking about representation. (Filmmaker Atom Egoyan has dealt with the paradoxes of video cemetaries in his film Speaking Parts .)

Stephen Hill in his book The Tragedy of Technology (iv) makes the argument that there is certain opaqueness to the historical process which leads from the invention of a new technology to its acceptance by society at large. The opaqueness tends to elide context and makes it appear as if innovation and inspiration are one and the same. “...technological artefacts presented a message, a text to be read, to both the producers and the users. But neither group could read the message for it was opaque in its subsequent social connotations. The text was opaque because neither group could see anything but the meaning of the technologies for their immediate life-world. Neither group could see beyond this life-world to the wider ‘system’ of technology-social relations that produced both the technologies themselves and the life-world consequences that the system implied.”(v)

The difficulty here is that Hill talks about social, cultural and economic forces with precisely the kind of determinism which he criticizes other historians for in his book. The process of invention, use and understanding cannot be located, as it were, in the technology or in the human subjects who make use of that technology. There is no convenient dyad to begin with which specifies or lays out the plan for a new invention. Subjectivity is involved at all stages — and there are no peripheral moments when the technology takes on a life of its own. The implication of what I am saying is that innovation should not be read backwards as an example of change. The continual process of renewal means that no society is ever in stasis long enough to bracket out the shifts it creates. The social is an ever expanding movement along a distinctly non-linear path and this results in reciprocal exchanges between tradition and innovation, a production of boundaries and historical markers, all of which can be dissolved and recreated. The parameters of this dialectical process are forever changing.

Technology does not reveal subjectivity — neither would be possible without the other. There are few moments in history when technology has not played a role in the development of human society. The more important question is how human agents from varying backgrounds, of different gender, with dramatically different ethnic and family histories are able to negotiate meaningful relationships with the technologies they are inextricably bound to.

Let us suppose for a moment that two visually based machines address each other. How could this process be visualized? Two computers in contact through modems? Two video monitors in opposing ends of a boxing ring, volumes at high, yelling at each other? (A recent Nike advertisement has televisions talking to each other.) At which point is subjectivity disengaged? Machines are so fragile that that an electrical blackout removes them from the scene. In this sense to what degree does a new technology establish the parameters of cultural activity or the boundaries of human speech? These are not equations subject to the movement of one process through another, because technology per se has no identity, no space within which “it” can play out a role without the process of interpretation attached to the exchange. This is not even an exchange because machines cannot be abstracted from the social context within which they are anthropomorphized. It might be better put to say that specific human beings create hypothetical systems of communication which depend on the juxtaposition of machine and speech. The latter simply overwhelms the former (as with the telephone and the computer — both metonymically based on the verbal — neither capable of constraining or reconfiguring the verbal) and preserves, if not consolidates, the control which humans exercise over their own inventions. If it appears as if I am simply negating the more controversial tenets of McLuhanism here, let me counter this by saying that McLuhan put subjectivity and technology on opposite ends of an arrow pointed in both directions at once. The idea of reciprocity — the ontological status of the machine — already confers continuity to a situation which doesn't have to be framed by any sort of linkage.

There is a sense in which electronic media are indistinguishable, one from the other. It can be argued that the historical constraints operating on all electronic technologies are somewhat similar — this is of course at the root of the kind of universalist statement made by McLuhan, that the medium is the message. That is, any medium, irrespective of its history and its characteristics falls into a process which produces a conflation of technology and understanding. Presaging Jean Baudrillard, McLuhan's famous aphorism invokes a world of simulcra in which the distinction between subject and object collapses and in which auth-ority is, so to speak, a function of technology.

What interests me is whether there is a link between the appearance of video and the presumption that there ever was a difference between the medium and the message. The difficulty for me is situated in the discourse which we have available for discussing the electronic media. How can we write or speak about electronic images?

The question of discourse and public and private forms of expression is crucial. Much has been made, for example, of the impact of video on less economically developed societies in Asia and the Pacific and Africa. Stephen Hill mentions the impact of video on Tongans where an economy which can barely sustain itself has nevertheless developed a burgeoning industry in VCR sales and video rentals. “So what the people are voraciously consuming is the worst X-rated movies, replete with sex and violence, that cannot be sold in many developed country outlets.” “Thus, what the people, often still living in traditional village communities, are seeing, and modelling, is the worst of the excrescenses of advanced industrial life.” (vi)

Yet the problem here seems to be Hill's. For are to imagine that video happens on the scene in isolation from the cultural framework of the people themselves? To what degree can their interest in pornography be attributed to video? Why does electronic sex occupy some of their time? These are not questions which this piece can attempt to answer. Suffice to say that there is no simple analytic stepladder which can be applied to this process. If the public sphere is to be of any interest then one must be able to account for these activities without overvaluing either their content or their presence. For example, why would electronic sex be of interest to begin with? Why is it possible to be aroused by an electronic image?

Technology does not exist outside of history, does not create history, is not simply a response to historical change. The separateness of machine and human is a human construction. It is the response of subjectivity to its own creative endeavours. There is no direct sequential movement here, no primal point of origin where machine and human find a point in space and time outside of the social. These are divisions which cannot be proven, though they can be imagined. William Gibson's Neuromancer notwithstanding, it is the limitations of human speech and response which characterize the overvaluation of technology. No picture should be drawn
here which doesn't take account of the eruptions of the verbal — even a robot camera programmed to watch over a bank cannot override its own basic coding. The camera cannot write the scenario of the robbery which may or may not happen. Events as such, cannot be digitized — the virtual remains a human concept dependent on the semiotics of images as imagined by subjects. This, despite the fact that we can watch Humphrey Bogart reincarnated as a character on Home Improvement or smiling in a night club for a coca cola advertisement.

It is not without interest that assembly-line robots need cameras in order to “see” and that their version of sight cannot function without human intervention. The idea — a mythic one — that cameras can operate without humans to direct them, transforms the physics of optics into the metaphysics of vision. The wonder of this process, the excitement of the power which accompanies it is the basis for the pleasure we gain from using machines. It might be useful to think then of the extraordinary power of watching a television. The excitement comes from giving free reign to the imaginary in a sanctioned environment — to see anew, again and again — to explore the parameters of knowledge — to go where no human has gone before. Lest this be seen as a duplication of television's own concept of itself, it seems clear that the arguments presently in place for the activity of viewing are strung out along a very thin border between conflicting conceptions of passivity and non-passivity. This dichotomy cannot account for televisual viewing, so we need an entirely different model.

The deliberate structuring of a narrative for the electronic media is as much of a response to this set of unknowns (to this potential anarchy of the visual and the mental) as it is a pointer towards the endlessly inventive fictions which accompany the activity of storytelling. For no sooner has the story been told than it is retold again. And it is in this highly concentrated version of the real that the machine intervenes as a purveyer of yet another level of invention. In this ‘Ocean of Stories’ the anti-story, as Salman Rushdie has so cleverly pointed out also has a story, a shadow-self into which the machine fits as a prop. Yet as Haroun listens to the tale of stories and anti-stories wiping each other out, this negation of a negation is at the heart of yet another narrative. There is no way in which the shadow can be released from its master, no possible way in which a story can exist without a double.

Bill Viola, the American video artist created a piece about this paradox. It is entitled, The Reflecting Pool. A male character approaches a pool set in a forest. He stands at the edge and stares at his reflection. Then he jumps up and is suspended in mid-air above the water. He is frozen but the pool continues to reflect changes of colour, and the movement of other characters. Slowly and imperceptibly he disappears from the foreground of the scene. The reflections in the pool seem to have little to do with what surrounds the water. There is a clear disjuncture between the story and the storytelling which is compounded when the male character suddenly climbs out of the pool, naked, and walks off into the forest. This breakdown of narrative causality, the inherent quality of disjuncture, the arbitrary juxtaposition of elements, is located in the doubling of image and character. The man cannot discover his identity just as the pool cannot reflect what surrounds it, and though he might, like Narcissus, wish to become what he sees, the pool will only permit him to be reborn on its own terms. Thus the reflection is neither what he expects nor can it be manipulated. The shadow hangs on and what it needs is light. However, in order for the pool to be reflective it must be dark. Neither the story nor the anti-story can exist in a separate universe and this interdependence is both what marks and then constrains the electronic image. He is a witness to his own inability to control his image and yet he knows there would be no image were he not part of the scene. The pool becomes a metaphor of his struggle to control what he himself has created. In the final analysis his identity cannot be judged from the outside. Reflections cannot be generated in a vacuum.

This inseparability of picture and self, the idea that neither can exist without the other provides a framework for, but not the content of the electronic image. It is as if the pool could evolve in any direction and as if nature itself has become a construct. It is a fascinating gesture towards a primitive utopia or should I say, a quintessential melding of image and reality. Thus the electronic image is the site of a new Garden of Eden in which the natural is as much a concept as it is a representation. Concepts and representations don't have to be linked — the competence to understand each of these reversals lies with the interpretive power of the viewer who has learned to reconstruct meaning from a set of sometimes disparate if not contradictory elements. The electronic image is attached to an ongoing process of interpretation and this is perhaps why the division between the passive and the non-passive is unworkable.

(i) See, Medium Media, #1, Autumn, 1971. This journal came out of Montreal and was edited by Pierre Desrosiers. Its first issue is devoted to the history and potential of community media, with a specific emphasis on the porta-pack and on cable access.
(ii) Anne-Marie Duguet, “The Luminous Image: Video Installation,” Camera Obscura, #13-14, Spring-Summer, 1985, p. 29. iiiAkio Morita, the founder and head of Sony said of the VCR: “[It] will revolutionize television. It will change the concept of prime time so that any time can be prime time. Before the development of video recording, television was too fleeting. While it has been outstanding for conveying information, providing entertainment, and improving our culture, the sad fact exists that once a program is off the air it is gone forever for the T.V. viewer. Newspapers, magazines, and books can be read and kept for future reference. But this had not been so with T.V. programs seen in the home.” Quoted in Nick Lyons, “The Age of Betamax,” in The Sony Vision , (Crown: New York, 1976) p. 211.
(iii) Stephen Hill, The Tragedy of Technology, (London: Pluto Press, 1988) vHill, p.33. viHall, p.85.