Open File

Tim Dixon — Virtual Space/Digital Trace Essay
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Virtual Space/Digital Trace

The first camera in the history of cinema was pointed at a factory. 1 And the first piece of moving image footage showed the employees of that factory leaving. The 42 seconds of The Lumière Brother’s The Workers Leaving The Factory (1895) was made by intermittently allowing light to enter through a shutter causing chemical reactions to occur on a piece of photo-sensitive film; A direct referent to the real world; An indexical trace of an event which occurred rendered in such a way as to create an illusion of its reoccurrence each time it was projected.

Watching this piece of footage I cannot help but be struck by the conclusory statement in Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida as he wrestles with finding the genius of photography while he looks at a picture of his mother (recently deceased) as a child; a feeling that this has been. There are moments that might be likened to Roland Barthes’ punctum – the pin prick detail that gives a still image its resonance – though here they are in sequence, in motion: The woman who tugs at another woman’s skirt, the dog that comes bounding through the legs of workers swiftly followed by its owner in pursuit. Moments like this that separate an individual from the mass, moments of human connection.

The story of the moving image, however, rapidly became a story of fictional space as it lent itself to the creation of virtual constructed worlds much more readily than its static cousin, photography. Much moving image does not have that essential this has been quality that makes photography photography. The story of cinema has more to do with strategies of creating ever more realistic fictional realms, ever more convincing illusions.

The 1960s saw artist film makers such as Michael Snow and Stan Brakhage taking on 16 and 8mm filmmaking in a way that applied the modernist logic of medium specificity to film in the way that painters had done so in order to reduce painting to pure, flat pigment on canvas. They interrogated the very condition of their chosen medium.

So what of medium specificity in relation to film, the moving image, and video-making today, as we enter the digital, high-definition age of the 21st century?

Tacita Dean’s recent commission for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, simply entitled FILM, is both a call to arms for those working with that most threatened of media, and a monument to its increasingly lost specificity. The accompanying catalogue essay, by Dean herself, addresses these issues head on: “Digital cinema has not yet come into itself.” She says, “It will, I am sure, when it becomes less preoccupied with imitating and destroying its antecedent, film, and more focused upon innovation and its own potential in hitherto unchartered territory and a hitherto unchartered cinema.” 2 Railing against the digitisation of works produced on film, Dean argues for a deeper understanding of film as a unique and irreplaceable medium. And so too for the digital.

The digital moving image is an entirely new medium and deserves to be treated as such. To what extent does the discourse on film up to now address what we are dealing with when we deal with this bodyless medium? This medium that has no physical referent, and does not even exist in any traditional sense?

“Film is time made manifest” 3 states Dean. What then is a digital video? What of images that are captured straight to a memory card, transferred to a computer for editing and post-production and then projected as pixels on a screen, never physically manifested in any form, never once leaving a trace?

[1] Voiceover in Harun Farocki’s The Workers Leaving The Factory 1995
[2] Tacita Dean in FILM, Tate, 2011, page 16
[3] ibid page 19

File under — writing

Tim Dixon is a freelance curator and co-founder of Open File.

As part of ‘Virtual Space/Digital Trace’ at Grand Union, Birmingham this writing was presented in context with: analogue, digital, publication, Roland Barthes and structuralist film alongside works by the following artists: David Raymond Conroy, Ed Atkins, Mark Titchner, Richard Healy, Tom Badley and William Rounce.