Friday, July 24, 2020

Macrovision 1 - the contents of this videocassette.

At the beginning of my VHS copy of The Ring (2002, dir. Gore Verbinski), after a standard copyright notice, a DreamWorks logo and trailers, there is an informational short sponsored by FACT, the Federation Against Copyright Theft. It explains the dangers of video piracy.

As a slightly edgy and streetwise sounding voice over warns “the pirates are out to get you, don't let them brand you with their mark“ a demonic blacksmith with glowing eyes and enveloped in flames, heats a branding iron bearing an X before holding it up to camera. 

 

The voice goes on to tell us video piracy funds organised crime, terrorism and that it will destroy 'our development and your enjoyment'. As the iron's brand is plunged into water it's X transforms into the copyright © and our voiceover gives way to a more measured and well spoken voice that advises how one should go about handing over any suspected pirates to the authorities.

Described on a Public Information Film fansite as “perhaps one of the darkest and scariest anti-piracy PIFs ever made“¹
it represents a coming together of the horror genre, anti-piracy and the videocassette; a cocktail that seeks to utilise horror tropes, on the home territory to scare viewers into resisting the temptation of dabbling in the dark arts of video piracy.

Elements that, according to Caetlin Benson-Allott's, Retrotechnophobia: Putting an End to Analog Abjection with The Ring ² are also to be found in the tape's main feature.



The © brand now a sigil charged with another kind of authority and message. i.e. The movie you are about to see is a work of fiction, for your entertainment – but make copies of it and you will know the full might of the law and perhaps even the horrors of financial ruin or incarceration.

The ©, is finally displayed embedded, for increased emphasis and veracity, within the word FA©T. It seems the mantra – it's only a movie, only a movie... – does not entirely apply here and we are left with a question. Was a movie on videocassette, the cassette itself or the machine on which it was played capable of scaring audiences into regulating their video practices to fall into line with the desires of nervous holders of video copyright?


Anyone who has ever watched a horror movie in the slasher sub-genre, as exemplified by Friday the 13th (1980,dir. Sean Cunningham) or Halloween (1978, dir.John Carpenter) and very much imitated thereafter will know that tropes that exploit target audience anxieties and guilty pleasures, imagined or otherwise were part of that particular genre's language .

Whether sneaking out to smoke dope or having sex with a smuggled in friend whilst on babysitting duties, these minor transgressions were often met with the harshest and most immediate penalties.

Whether these repetitive acts of screen violence are understood to function as an ideological thrust from the film makers or merely evidence of a marketing feedback loop or assumption of their audience's desires and fears or a falling back on what has proven turn a reliable profit for the film's producers -- the notion that the horror genre, contains and makes use of 'cautionary tale' tactics and tropes is not a new one. 

With this in mind, Caetlin Benson-Allott's proposition in her 2013 essay Retrotechnophobia: Putting an End to Analog Abjection with The Ring, that the US remake The Ring (2002) hosts, a specific warning against transgressive behavior can said to adhere to a convention, long established within the horror genre. Benson-Allott's reading of the The Ring is akin to Samara's tape within it, in that it contains, hidden somewhere out of ordinary view, a threat of retribution lest the viewer do as they are told.

Benson-Allott's proposals can also be viewed as a very clever, playful meta-textual proposition, whereby a narrative concerned with the distribution of urban myth seeks to generate it's own.

Retrotechnophobia operates in sort of experimental hyperstitional sandbox, presenting it's ideas in the region of, too strange to be true yet too clearly evidenced to be easily dismissed as false, that provides fertile substrate for myth and associative thinking. It is also a learned and impeccably researched text that explores an area previously widely ignored. While focusing on the point of death of VHS, the horror of it's rejection en masse (just for the sake of a few more pixels, saved shelf space and a directors commentary) the text helps illuminate the fact that in certain respects the VCR was always abject. A miraculous medium yet one that, despite widespread diffusion, was rarely recognised on it's own terms. A bitterly poor substitute for the cinema, a mere add-on to television with 'Made for Home Video' or 'Straight-to-Video' considered hallmarks of cheap, inept attempts to ape dominant media
³.
The areas where Home Video and the VCR asserted themselves and found a niche also suggested abjection and deviancy; Pornography, extreme horror and of course illegal copy making ⁴.

Not only was the VCR undervalued it was largely misunderstood, resulting in a black slab of technology sat in almost every home, simultaneously as mundane as it was impossible to truly understand.

We lived with VCRs for twenty five years without ever really finding out how they worked.

I'll write more about this in the future but Benson-Allott is absolutely right to describe the videocassette as a “small casket whose inner cavity... cannot be opened”  unless first hidden within the recesses of the VCR, itself a black box extraordinaire – arguably the most highly sealed to enter into home/consumer use up to that point and maybe even since. 

Why wouldn't they make ideal hiding places?

Benson-Allot isn't the only writer to consider hidden content or intention in The Ring. In the introduction to Cinema in the Digital Age, (2009, Walllowerpress) a series of essays on cinema's transition from analogue to digital that frequently turns to The Ring, Nicholas Rhombes also considers it a space for concealment when he cites it as 'A genre film hiding an Avant-Garde video inside it'. He locates within The Ring 'strange correspondences between film images, a sort of secret history' and suggests digital technology has 'stripped away a layer, and exposed uncanny associations'.

Retrotechnophobia seems to epitomise a treatment of the moving image media suggested by Rhombes when he states, 'terms like 'intention' and 'genre' need to be reinvented, for what links films together is not simply their plots, their styles, their directors, but something less coherent'.  Benson-Allott would seem to agree when talking of 'new video studies' and the reading she applies to The Ring feels as though it exists not merely as subtext but as something not unlike the active elements within Samara's curse tape. 

In the digital age we've grown accustomed to the idea that there is always a little more than we can see within our media content. From the serendipity of the Easter Egg, to the hidden sector, the tracker, the Trojan and the large portions of data and media within the files themselves that seem to sit dormant, unused, often apparently empty.

Lines of code such as 'Multiline comments' that are hidden from view, within the inner confines of a file - not visible to a user or viewer and hidden from the platform or operating system under which the code is running.

There are such spaces and artifacts to be found within analogue media but they are not as simple to create, conceal or manage. They have been less discussed or understood and are perhaps, therefore, arguably always less expected.  
When reading it's complex electronic signal, the VCR's specialised electromechanical processes are so contingent on precise variants such as timing, pressure and sensitivity that it is highly vulnerable to interference, error and loss. For this reason, barely any intervention be it hobbyist, hacker, artist was made at the actual 'read' end of the VCR apparatus. Video processing, manipulation and effects generation that began with early video artists before swiftly being further developed in industrial, creative and later home user contexts deals exclusively with the video signal as it leaves the playback device rather than as it is captured within it. For these reasons the home VCR lived and died as a black box technology.

The functioning of a black box can be described or observed as extrapolation even when the inner workings are obscured.  A simple block diagram could be used to explain the functional relationship between a videocassette and a VCR without ever having to remove a screw but, at most levels of proficiency exploring and explaining such spaces, using blind cause and effect descriptions creates potential for certain factors and interstices to be overlooked.  

Every blackbox will contain areas unknowable from the outside. Given the complexity and integrity of the VCR and Videocassette it should come as no surprise that they possess such spaces too.

Within the narrative of The Ring, Samara's tape utilises such a space. Locating room for an occult function in a device that already exhibited high levels of the unknown.

Caeltin Benson- Allott's exploration of The Ring  as horror laced with anti-piracy propaganda led me to consider another anti-copy apparatus that would seem to uncannily display and evoke similar tropes and features. Like Samara's curse it is hidden within the medium, burnt in using non conventional means to a location deep within the sealed container.

1. https://pif.fandom.com/wiki/Federation_Against_Copyright_Theft_-_The_Pirates_Are_Out_To_Get_You  --  watch the video here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLBY4qzUMNw

2. Retrotechnophobia: Putting an End to Analog Abjection with The Ring, published in Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens, 2013, Caetlin Benson-Allott, University of California Press

3. Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium, 2014, Michael Z. Newman, Columbia University Press.

4. A key reference here is clearly, Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright, 2009, Lucas Hilderbrand, Duke University Press but also Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horror-Avant-garde, 2000, Joan Hawkins, University of Minnesota Press and Electric Blues: The Rise and Fall of Britain's First Pre-recorded Videocassette Distributors, 2016, Julian Upton, Edinburgh University Press are also all great.

Friday, June 19, 2020

On the 66th Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen.

transcribed and expanded first impressions captured on voice recorder, 2014: I find Oberhausen to be a pleasant town of appealing proportions. The architecture is oddly varied except in its height that rarely seems to exceed four stories. Much rebuilt after the devastating bombing raids of the second world war, it's as if the structures mistrust the sky and huddle down together, close to the ground, trying to present hard targets. The style of certain wide yet un-assuming avenues furnished with rows of terraced townhouses reminds me of the Quai au Foin in Brussels or other towns with Flemish influence, the kind of terrain where a dreamy city roamer must always keep one eye on the pavement lest he wander into some unnoticed historic canal. The local residents go about their business and appear to be tucked up in bed by eleven o'clock. Once a year the film festival arrives...

 
This year it didn't. Or it didn't while at the same time it did, last month May 13th - 19th. So much dialogue surrounding the type of moving image celebrated and explored at Oberhausen Short Film Festivals has, of recent years, concerned itself with uncertainty and vulnerabilities of the medium itself. Is cinema dead? Does the digital image provide an adequate replacement for the film strip? What chance do artist labs and co-operatives, independent screens and facilities have when even industrial chains are potentially being driven out of business by apparently global overcooking of property prices? (1)

The forces that define ontologies shift. Pressures create imprints, mold and shape. There was a time when independent film makers faced impossible costs for equipment and material. Then having strived for a means to produce, they were met with the terrible reality that barely anyone would be able to witness it. The systems of distribution allowed little to no space for independent, experimental or underground work and short work has always struggled to find audiences. Cheap, high quality digital equipment solved the first of these problems. The accessibility of high bandwidth cyberspace put an end to the second.

More recently constraints on physical spaces in which to make and present work have increased year on year with little hope of abating. For a society invested in the virtual, material space is commanding an outrageous premium.

Which is why events like Oberhausen continue to be important to the world of short film and video. But if cinema can survive the (near) death of film, the transition into the less material domains of the digital – how would the ontology of an specific material durational event such as a long standing film festival fare online?

With over 2500 passes sold and 1000 trade visitors I guess the simplest answer would be – pretty well.

The selection of films lined up at Oberhausen this year often seemed to address the lack of physical stimuli ; large darkened audatoria, drinks and chats with makers, viewers and critics on the pedestrianised thoroughfare outside Kino Lichtburg, glasses of cold Bitburger -- with work that provoked a sense of the haptic, the sensations of the flesh, the indexicality so privileged by exponents of analogue.

The immersive pleasure of the cinema auditorium may have been absent whilst watching a video such as Bog Body (2019, 16m, Joonas Hyvönen) on a laptop sat on a messy desk during lockdown but there were invitations to be immersed elsewhere – in a very wet (digital) peat bog for instance. This place we discover, like film, video and digital, is a storage space for memory. To slip into this quagmire, like the crooning protagonist, is to become deathly, spectral, like the sonar image of a shipwreck too deep to be experienced as anything other than a ghost. The objects within the bog have become merely images, recordings. And yet the trade off here is a potentially fair one, as with any film subject, to enter the bog offers a possibility of immortality. As storage media go, peat preserves very well and resident Tardigrades have excellent memories (and not just for bad jokes).
                                                       Bog Body, Joonas Hyvönen, courtesy of AV-arkki

Storage media and sensory mash up are also central in Patent Nr: 314805 (2020, 2m, Mika Taanila) Here a very early attempt to record sound onto film, rediscovered in the Finnish Film Archives, boldly dominates the screen, bringing with it synesthesia and a reminder that film has been, at every step not just recorder as in live action filming, or means of synthesis as in animation but an analytic tool as in the chronophotography of Marey, Muybridge and many successors who have used the power of film to visualise that previously invisible.
                                                  Patentti Nr. 314805, Mika Taanila, courtesy of Kurzfilmtage

The process created by in 1914 by Eric Tigerstedt, the 'Edison of Finland' no less, captured sound as stark, vivid monochrome images with an enigmatic device he called the Photomagnetophone. During an post screening Zoom interview, Taanila was asked several times how the images were created and, it seems, he either doesn't know or prefers the mystery of the process to remain undivulged. Either way the fluttering stripes of sound that run vertically down the screen are spellbinding to watch and remarkably similar to the optical sound systems that would become industry standards some years later. The undulating recordings are also reminiscent of a sine wave displayed on an oscilloscope – an image that would become a cross genre cinematic trope to denote the white heat of science and visualisations of the futuristic and the unknown. They must surely have looked that way in 1914.
Tigerstedt's comparison to Edison reinforces the oft stated fact that the American was as inspired a businessman as inventor. The Phonomagnetophone, like many other innovations by the prophetic Tigerstedt went unrewarded and it seems he died in 1925 having received little recognition for his work.

A highlight of the festival for me was Susannah Gent's Psychotel (2020, 60m) that explores the uncanny, though montages of rich image and spoken text, evocations of horror film and folk tale. Gent, a taxidermist, understands that, like a photograph as described by Barthes – the stuffed cadaver and the representational moving image function both a transgression of death and memento mori – a reminder of it's inescapability.

                                        Psychotel, copyright Susannah Gent, 2020

The corridors of the Psyhotel are those Kubrick chased Steadicam operators along – a flying eye perspective rushing towards a date with unknown. We observe it's rooms as if through a peepholes carved in the wall. The otherliness of the hotel room exists partly in the fluidity of it's possession. What is 'my room' was recently someone else's. And yet, as witnessed in Norman Bate's post homicidal tidy up, all trace of previous occupant's presence has been erased. That's part of the service, delivered by unseen and unknown hands.

Like their bodily counterparts, the living, spectres require a space. Most fictional texts that concern themselves with haunting embed the ghosts and their back stories around a physical location or space. The house built on an ancient burial ground, the Gothic castle, the suburban home tormented by previous tenants who had met bitterly violent ends. The hotel room is more of a palimpsest, with any personal, durational or emotional investment or charge created during occupation being thoroughly erased before the next tenant takes residency may seem unlikely space for a haunting on these terms. The hotel room resists the imposition of the type of histories that the supernatural appear to demand and yet, uncannily, the spooky hotel finds itself charged with a extra burst of eeriness. Certain revenants  ignore check out time and as for observing the 'do not disturb' signs, well...

Mark Fisher, describes the eerie a sense of 'something where there should be nothing, or there is nothing where there should be something.' (2) The hotel with it's long empty corridors, and quasi private spaces, that lack evidence of personal occupation clearly meet the latter of these definitions and when there is suggestion that some presence, psychic or supernatural exists within this neutral, generic place the former is evoked.

As illuminated by Laura Mulvay, (3) Freud saw the uncanny as a troubling reconnection with repressed figments of a shared or personal past. To experience the uncanny was to re-encounter traces of fears previously believed to have been overcome. For Ernst Jentsch, the uncanny was as much about that which made strange in the presentation of elements that provoke a sense of 'intellectual uncertainty', that which operates in ways that we cannot fathom – a technological uncanny. (4)

Gent's film exemplifies both definitions excellently and the sense of unearthing of anxieties and tropes from a repressed past, their manifestation in abjection and unease are balanced against masterful conception, direction and visuality that impress with as vivid sense of the contemporary.

As to the uncanniness of the festival that was not there and it's the doppelgänger Oberhausen's 66th Internationale Kurzfilmtage, 2020... it would appear to follow Jentsch rather than Freud. It is a celebration of cinematic vision, voice and spectacle that astounds with the novel and the cutting edge. A showcase for another year's inspiration and hard work from around the globe. As for Freud's definition of the uncanny, it simply does not function as a repression or revenant when, even during the Covid lockdown of 2020, it never really went away.



  1. I'm referring to the closure of the Multiscreen Sony Cinestar at Potsdamerplatz, Berlin which was apparently shut due to rising rent costs. The excellent repertory and experimental screens at the close by Arsenal happily continue.
  2. Mark Fisher, The Weird and The Eerie (Repeater, 2017)
  3. Laura Mulvay, Death 24x a Second (Reaktion Books, 2006)
  4. Ernst Jentsch, On the Psychology of the Uncanny (1906), Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny (1919)


Monday, April 13, 2020

Please Look at the Screen


PleaseLookAt theScreen from scratch.utopia on Vimeo.


 In the mid-nineties I was making video about video. With the accelerated proliferation of video cameras it seemed to me that we would from now on, and to ever increasing degrees, exist alongside our video doubles. Reflections, simulacra these were renditions of ourselves that we were about to get to know very well -- to witness on a daily basis. But how much did we really know about the technology that was producing them? What would our reactions to their ever increasing presence be?

 Shot on SVHS in the loft studio of Tower Hamlets Community College, Jubilee Street, London -  participants are interviewed whilst confronted with a monitor, feeding back a live image of themselves.

 I remember being unhappy with the unease the experiment seemed to create in the participants, none of whom I'd known before (or knew after) but who had all enthusiastically volunteered to appear in the piece.

 I'd hoped they would elaborate and expand on their responses and attempt to  elucidate freely on what it felt like to be reflected by and embodied within electronic media. At the time it seemed that despite my best efforts, my attempts to elicit relaxed responses had failed, leaving the participants uncomfortable and unwilling to open up.

 It's hard to imagine now that appearing on a TV screen was still a relatively novel experience for most, just twenty five years ago. 

 I was interested in exploring my belief at that time, that consumers and users of  video technology were already alienated from it and, perhaps rather cynically, my suspicion that these technologies were ultimately capable of alienating us from each other. 

 Oddly, the anxiety that seems to underpin the participant's reactions now seems the most interesting facet of the piece. In an era when we truly co-exist and interact with our video doubles on a daily basis, it is of interest to see that the initial novelty of this relationship, in this instance anyway, appears to quickly give way to a sense of trepidation, distrust and anxiety.

Friday, September 13, 2019

The electric eye torpedo.

 
In 1934, Vladimir K. Zworykin, the inventor of the Iconoscope video camera tube, stared into the sun and imagined... explosive laden Japanese fighter planes, manned by fanatical suicidal pilots, crashing down onto US military assets in an imminent war. 




In a flash of inspiration he decided his device should be used to counter this threat; that it should be placed into the noses of an unmanned military aircraft to become a 'flying torpedo with an electronic eye'. Its signal would be transmitted to a remote operator who would use the cameras vision to guide the aircraft, laden with explosives, into a enemy targets.

This highly classified project that would become known as Block was responsible for multiple breakthroughs in television imaging and transmission, radically reducing the equipment's size and weight while developing image resolution and contrast level that matched the transmission limitations against the quality of image required to identify and guide the projectiles towards a chosen target.¹


The system was used during WWII , though apparently infrequently, with many over produced Iconoscope cameras later finding their way into the post-war army surplus market² Project Block remains a little known footnote in the history of video, overshadowed by the medium's post war boom years, rapid technological improvements and commercial broadcast television's entry into so many aspects of Western culture.

The concept of an electric flying torpedo would have to wait some fifty years until advances provided increased accuracy and lethality, and a means to record higher definition images that could be disseminated to millions of television viewers before Zworykin's idea would have genuine military and cultural impact.
In the 80s, Paul Virilio draws attention to early era the film makers who wanted to cast their cameras through the air from Vertov's kino-eye to Abel Gance's desire for cameras thrown like snowballs. In War and Cinema he quotes Nam June Paik as proposing the root meaning of video as being not 'I see' but 'I fly'.

But the provenance of the electronic eye torpedo evades him, the idea of a missile guided by television seems startlingly new. 

Virilio: ''with the advent of electronic warfare.. projectiles have awakened and opened their many eyes: .... warheads fitted with video-cameras that can relay what they see to pilots and to ground controllers sitting at their consoles. The fusion is complete, the confusion perfect: nothing now distinguishes the functions of the weapon and the eye''³ 

During the Gulf War the POV of a television guided missile became a familiar sight on television and inspired thinkers and commentators. The idea of a 'clean war', a conflict fought only on television seemed to be, for commentators like Baudrillard, entirely a reflection of the contemporary technological state of the art. In 1993 Lev Manovich seems startled that he had 'witnessed what was "seen" by a machine, a bomb, or a missile'  

The electric eye torpedo became posited as a facet of the end game of electronic visual media, rather than it's beginning. 

While Project Block may appear to have been forgotten it's legacy endures - though perhaps, not where we might first look for it.

In the years prior to Project Block being developed, representatives of science, business, the entertainment industry and state were wondering what this new technology, electronic moving pictures should be used for; in which direction should it be taken.

After the second world war ended, television began to position itself as the dominant media platform until, by the end of the twentieth century continuous advances in miniaturization, image quality, stability and cost reduction delivered accessible video cameras first to state, then industry and community before the home and later, towards the present, they were to be found in every into every pocket in the developed world. 

Low cost, low power consumption, miniaturization, means they can now be anywhere, everywhere, to perform any task.

This moment of ubiquity, of universality may prompt questions similar to those asked in the 1930s. 

Where should we go with this now?

And from this position, privileged by the multitude of potentials for new direction that went with it emerged, among many others, an answer: the action cam. 

 

The construction and outward appearance of the action cam, like its great, great grandparent, the Block 1 is marked by the plainness of it's housing and an apparent lack of design flair. An entirely uniform and utilitarian unit, aesthetically, little more than a box with a lens. 

It's return to archetype may signal something significant. But there is difference to found here as well as similarity.
Despite the absence of a viewfinder and it's non-ergonomic design, the action cam is very much designed to function as a body worn device; a device that is 'potentially multi sensory and may not feature visuality as the most important modality of camera engagement. The experience may be more immediately physical and tactile,'֩ (5)Like the animated tripod in Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera, it's place of mounting will direct it's gaze, share it's gaze. 

The Block was operated from a position and state of disembodiment, the operator using visual display, joystick and command functions in a manner prescient of multiple remote technologies.

And despite any external similarity, there is another difference indicated if not  outward appearance, then by it's external materiality. The action cam's body is designed to withstand impact; significant impact and trauma beyond any level built into consumer level photographic products previously. It's exoskeleton must protect fragile inner components and optics not just from everyday use, but the strains of high velocity impact and extreme environmental conditions.

The Block, like the Japanese airmen that troubled Zworykin, and like so many assets during a time of war, was considered expendable. A successful mission would involve the delivery and detonation of high explosives mounted just a few feet from the camera body, tube and lens. It's rigid shell, was intended to protect the unit from extreme cold of high altitude, etc.; the rigors of it's single journey to it's target -- but not from it from it's final planned event.

And this is where similarity can be said to re-emerge for both cameras are expected to document high impact. The Block, imagined in the shock of the concept of suicidal dare devils and eighty years later - the action cam would appear to be designed to tolerate violent impact beyond that which it's operator's body could physically endure. Both cameras seem to ultimately share a purpose, to record (possibly fatal) impact and destruction.  

The video eye's first major deployment was as the ersatz eye of a suicide bomber; both cameras betray a desire to document the violent impact sustained of being thrust onto the photographic subject; a high velocity union where gaze is concertinaed, the focal plane and image are conjoined with the subject, possibly destroying it, or the operator, the camera or all three.  

As of 2018 Go Pro alone has sold in excess of 30 million action cams. Perhaps Mary Lucier was wrong. The purpose of the video camera was not to watch a rising star, but one that is falling. 


 

1. WWII Military Television Systems by Maurice Schechter was at the New Jersey Museum, InfoAge Science Center,


3. Paul Virilio, War and Cinema, Verso, 1989.

4. The Mapping of Space: Perspective, Radar, and 3-D Computer Graphics – Lev Manovich 1993 http://manovich.net/index.php/projects/article-1993

5. My Hero: A Media Archaeology of Tiny Viewfinderless Cameras as Technologies of Intra-Subjective Action, Lisa Cartwright and D. Andy Rice, 2016. http://sfonline.barnard.edu/traversing-technologies/lisa-cartwright-d-andy-rice-my-hero-a-media-archaeology-of-tiny-viewfinderless-cameras/0/


6. https://www.thestar.com.my/tech/tech-news/2018/07/17/gopro-has-now-sold-more-than-30-million-action-cameras-worldwide/


Friday, May 17, 2019

falling_star from scratch.utopia on Vimeo.
analogue traces

The sun descends over Berlin's Planterwald, May 2018. If it weren't for the haze, the Fernsehturm would be visible between the rectangular structure, part of the Treptowers complex and the electricity pylon. An 1970s artwork revisited using equipment roughly of that time and a little later; Hitachi CCTV FP71 camera, Sanyo VTC5000 Betacord VCR, using the VCR's 7 day timer and a mains timer switch for the camera. Video accelerated x64 with Windows Movie Maker and Blender.


Sometime around 1970 I became obsessed with the idea that video has been invented to satisfy an ancient longing: to allow the human eye to gaze directly at the sun without damage to the retina.

 Mary Lucier, Light and Death¹

In 1975 American artist, Mary Lucier pointed a video camera at the rising sun. In a piece titled Dawn Burn, a video camera captured dawn over the New York skyline; the sun's intensity leaving indelible traces on the fragile surface of the video tube as it crossed the frame.
For Lucier these marks were scars, 'trauma so deep it cannot be erased but, instead, accumulate on the image surface as a form of memory'
This process and Lucier's suggestion that her camera was able to absorb and retain what it had viewed, albeit as a form of wounding questions the fate of another video camera, a CCTV camera proposed by Bill Viola in Video Black – The Mortality of the Image², whose service of twenty years silently surveilling the same scene without ever being coupled to a recorder, comes to an end. Viola's camera is left with nothing to show for it's experience.
'Without a memory to give it a life, events flicker across its image surface with only a split second to linger as after images, disappearing forever without a trace. '
In The Autobiography of Video Ina Blom asserts 'changes can only be perceived if you are able to remember and compare. And memory, Viola tells us, is precisely what this camera does not have. You cannot expect it to tell history or to transfer accumulated knowledge. Its time is the present only, and the events that make up this present hardly seem to register at all, leaving only the briefest of traces.' ³
The 'after images' that Viola refers to, the 'traces' described by Blom are the video tube sensor's lag, a sort of electronic persistence of vision that would cause bright objects to appear to momentarily remain visible once removed from view or to stream ghosts as they move a screen. Described here as analogous to ultra short term memory; conspicuous enough to be visible yet too fleeting to have any mnemonic purpose, the phenomena is related to one of the factors that made the video tube's responding counterpart, the Cathode Ray Tube that employed much the same technology but for display rather than capture, suitable to be adapted for use in the first electronic Random-access Memory system.4
Video's potential for immediate feedback, that proved alluring to early counterparts of Viola and Lucier, allowed for an entire computer program to be displayed on screen in a series of dots and dashes to then be read by a sensor that would then write the displayed quantity back onto the screen. Manually, the operator could access any part of the 32 bit memory code, intervening in the loop to adjust the data.
The video tube's ability to produce live feedback could potentially be adapted into memory systems. What it lacks is storage. Momentary delay or lag displayed on screen was no use for storage, the formation of a body or archive; a recording.
Although a means of electronically writing, saving or storing the imagery captured by the video tube had been imagined as far back as the 1920s the electronic moving image existed without dedicated storage until the late 50s. Until then it relied on a film camera to reshoot it's images. Unlike video, the motion film recording substrate was developed simultaneously to the development of the apparatus. Unlike video, every film second is provided for by multiple sensors, 'footage' that judders past the gate to become film frames. A scratched or over exposed film frame is, gone within the blink of an eye. Not so for the video camera that only ever has one sensor, one eye.
And yet, Lucier proves the video camera uncoupled to a recording medium, the eye without a brain, can in fact have recourse to a variant of storage; a write once system where memory is etched with a blinding light process gradually causing irreversible damage. Burn. The term used for this effect would later be used to describe optically writing data for storage to Compact Disc and DVD.
As with Keraunography, the mythical process where lines and images are drawn onto a variety of media including human skin by energy and light descending from the sky or Optography, the phenomena of the retina retaining its last seen image beyond death; video burn provides primitive, use once image storage that simultaneously inflicts injury or destruction of the device that has gathered it.
Combining Lucier and Violas cameras for experiment: a static Vidicon camera pointing towards the setting sun. Over a period of days and weeks, as the earth moves about the sun, the fireball's glare will streak across the image in gradual increments, creating diagonal tracks across the screen that resembles those made by video heads onto tape during the helical scan recording process. Unlike the magnetized tracks set into the rewritable palimpsest of video tape those drawn upon sensitive photoconductive layer of the Vidicon's target sensor cannot be erased.
Over the passage a year, a writing over of the entire target sensor could occur. Over the twenty years proposed by Viola, it would be entirely burnt and blinded, yet as it was retired, it would take with it some material evidence of its service, some indexical proof of what it had seen. Video, the medium born without memory would blind itself to create one. Video Black – Viola's camera has remembered something after all.


1. Mary Lucier, Light and Death printed in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, Doug Hall, Sally Jo Fifer, Aperture, 1990.

2. Bill Viola, 1990. excerpt printed in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings, Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz,University of California Press, 1996.

3. Ina Blom, The Autobiography of Video: The Life and Times of a Memory Technology, Sternberg Press, 2016.

4. The Small Scale Experimental Machine or Manchester Baby, 1948. http://www.computinghistory.org.uk/det/6013/The-Manchester-Baby-the-world-s-first-stored-program-computer-ran-its-first-program