Autumn 1999

Techno-orientalism, digital fetishism

A recent festival of new film-making showed what happens to creativity when designer/directors \'orientalise\' their digital tools

In the relationship between man and machine, man often loses, mostly without even realising it. Consider all the pop musicians of the 1980s who engaged with technology so enthusiastically. Less than a generation later, their music is perceived as a comedy showcase of redundant, eight-bit synths and two-bit drum sounds – a hideous reminder of how quickly the cutting edge turns to rotting edge. This, in the past, was the sound of the future, when a plethora of artists compensated for their lack of ideas with studio technologies: sampled orchestral stabs, syndrums, breakbeats, digital effects and vocoders.

Machines, it is easy to see in retrospect, can be limited and limiting when deployed uncritically, however enthusiastic their advocates may be about their potential to change contemporary practice and process; and the limitations of such systems can come to define the limitations of our creative products. When, in the catalogue for Onedotzero’s third festival of digital film-making, held at London’s ICA last spring, the blurb for Richard Kenworthy’s excellent Doug Gives a Talk on Electronics speaks of “Number three in a series of short films . . . where man meets machine and fails” one is tempted to say that this could also be applied to the majority of the film-makers in the programme, failing just as much as the proletarian, workaday Doug, with his Luddite tales of electrical gaffes and mishaps.

Curators Shane R. J. Walter and Matt Hanson, think of the festival as a showcase for work that makes use of digital technology in the creation of film. That’s a broad remit these days, but there was a strong element of graphic design work in this year’s festival, produced by designers who have used digital video and Mac-based editing techniques to “cross over” into film production. Contributors included Marc Nguyen Tan, Spin, ISO, Graphic Havoc and better-known design groups such as Fuel.

The festival’s main collection programmes, “Wow + Flutter” and “Wavelength”, focused on mapping “future visual styles”. A minority of designers and film-makers brought their voices to bear on digital technologies in a distinctive and innovative way: Hiroyuki Nakano in his first feature film Samurai Fiction, Richard Kenworthy in his aforementioned short, Spin in UK / USA, the Tomato group across their whole programme, Chris Cunningham in Windowlicker and Come On My Selector and Spike Jonze in Rockerfeller Skank. As for the rest, it was difficult to make out individual visions in the flurry of new digital techniques.

What distinguished the good from the bad was an element of narrative or discursive interest that took us beyond the desire to exoticise, or orientalise, technology and new techniques. First, there was little evidence of a thorough conceptual understanding of the technology and software deployed in the film-making process. Second, such technologies appeared to have been exoticised, to have taken on the fictional aspect of the fascinating, enthralling Other, engaging precisely and only because it is barely understood. When we orientalise technology and technique we often forget the most fundamental and basic prerequisites for making interesting work: conceptual structure, narrative play, dynamic progression.

The same orientalisation of technology, for instance, gave Paul Hardcastle a big international pop hit in the mid-1980s with “19”. Sampling only became interesting when we realised that listening to the number “nineteen” stuttered over and over was not exciting and, later on, that it was not even enough to whack horn stabs over a one-bar sample of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”. We could only really get started when the sampler had stopped being interesting in itself. Only then could the process of pushing the sampler/sequencer combination to its absolute limits begin, which has so far resulted, wonderfully, in the Jungle of the mid-1990s. While technology is sold as a means to speed up our work processes, techno-orientalism slows us down.

The least interesting work in Onedotzero came from creators so dazzled by the glare of new technologies that all that remained was a glorified demo for a software product. Jake Knight’s digital film promo for c12 was a good example of this, eschewing narrative interest in favour of tracing a Japanese waif’s path through a nondescript cityscape, warped here and there by digital effects. Knight’s work was both orientalising and techno-orientalising: the two central subjects are the blank, inscrutable, ghostly Japanese girl and the spectral presence of the visual trickery substituted for dramatic development. New technologies make us forget how limited our ideas are.

There were exceptions that made the festival more than a lesson in what to avoid. The visual psalms of Tomato’s compilation, named voxioo (pronounced “vwah-shoo”) drew heavily on the work of Andrei Tarkovsky to produce a hyperpastoral aesthetic: landscapes of dark intensity subtly augmented by a digital makeover. There was a serious paradigm shift for Tomato here, away from info-overload and the Burroughsian excess of quickfire cut-and-fold against homespun Underworld soundtracks. In “Heart”, technology fades to the background, and the themes of transcendence and sublime, pristine awareness, underscored by Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa come to the fore. It is in Tomato’s dark scrolling vistas of forest, black and dense, unmoving, the silent massive crops of the earth, that we glimpse a possible “future visual style”. The design group that defined the digital film genre’s constitutive aesthetic has turned around to produce mature work of a luminous, religious intensity. Tomato know how to stay ahead of the game – that one should not try to “map” or “predict” but to create the future (see Michael Worthington, page 28). By making serious work that is both predictive and predicative, focused on both forming an articulation of and subtly fomenting the zeitgeist, Tomato ensure they will not be consigned to the dustbin of knob-twiddlers.

Elsewhere, Chris Cunningham’s continuing enterprise of committing his psychic phantasy to film proved as engaging as ever. Like Tomato, Cunningham works through particular concerns in his films – identity, stereotype, sexuality, the man/machine interface – and deploys digital technology as his means of realising them. When one is treated to the spectacle of the grinning face of Aphex Twin Richard James mapped convincingly on to each of a group of tanned, buxom, bikini’d R’n’B girls’ faces in Windowlicker, one sees instantly that Cunningham’s work is only possible because of digital technology (see the Aphex Twin twelve-inch sleeve image in “Pop music art”, page 50). Doubtless he would have found other ways, in another time, to work out his ideas, but such technology, with its ability to create seamless illusion, to make the unreal appear real, is perfectly suited to his project. Cunningham uses his editing tools to lay down serious ontological challenges, which are both unfailingly witty and utterly disturbing. In essence, he has been making digital philosophy in the guise of promotional videos. Here is an example of a film-maker whose strong personal vision can only be realised through contemporary visual technology.

Too much of Onedotzero’s programme satisfied itself with trivial manipulations of the symbol structure of high-tech – with such banal results that one wished those empowered by technology to “cross over” into film-making would just cross back again. Such work is little more than eye candy for a generation whose attention account is deep in deficit, a generation weaned on glittery MTV shorts, used to consuming adverts as their cultural staple, only too pleased to spend an hour in one long eye-popping gawp at the latest FX wizardry from this or that designer-turned-film-maker. Even in the work of the design group Fuel one clearly discerned (amid a portfolio of an admittedly high stature) strains of a cynical approach to commercial work that in more than one case relied heavily on proprietary filters and clichéd software effects for its chief visual attractions.

What emerged from the discussions during Onedotzero’s third festival was the importance of asking in what ways (and to what ends) our tools are implicated in artistic processes. Though the notion of autocatalysis proposed by Kodwo Eshun (in which the machine becomes a creator independent of human agency) is largely a fiction, there is nonetheless the possibility of new soft- and hardware tools becoming implicated in contemporary design aesthetics in a way that their users do not understand. Techno-orientalism is a tendency that inhibits understanding: its fetishistic enjoyment of the outer surface of technology negates the need to go deeper.

In the place of the techno-orientalist paradigm must come a pragmatic exploration of the role of the machine in our everyday work practices. The Modernist notion of thoroughly comprehending one’s own medium is still relevant. Successful products of our engagements with technology are characterised by a deep understanding of the parameters of the machine. While the invention of the Roland 303 bass synth created, for example, the possibility of Acid House, it was only through an obsessional understanding of that machine’s parameters – the antithesis of techno-orientalism – that such music could come about. Only by attempting to comprehend the machine’s limitations can we go beyond them; by parodying and playing upon them (Kraftwerk); offering them as a basis for sublime transcendence (Acid); or pushing machines to do things their designers never thought possible (Plastikman).

The danger faced by the gung ho techno-orientalist is that of becoming submerged in the limited schemata of the programmers and engineers who create the tools. In his introduction to the programme, Matt Hanson asked where Onedotzero can go after its third run. The answer must be towards a solid understanding of the tools and techniques open to the digital film-maker. In the dialectical struggle between humans and machines, we lose when our machines and systems dazzle us so much that instead of innovating, we settle for tweaking the technical products sold to us. The new wave of digital film-makers must aim higher, bringing to bear their own ideas, their own paradigms, on the machines they use.

First published in Eye no. 33 vol. 9, 1999