So let me tell you about the time I met Stan Brakhage! Well, his name has cropped up a couple of times this week in conversations I’ve been having with people about the realm of digital in relationship to art and the sense that we may have inadvertently left behind something of value in all that old analogue gear.
I met Mr Brakhage a couple of times and had the pleasure of talking to him about his work. At the time I was particularly interested in whether there was a spiritual element to it – a meditative aspect with a Buddhist slant. He was adamant there was not (still not convinced). For him, the work was only meditative in the sense that cinema is an immersive experience shared in darkness with others in silence and with total focus on the dance of the image and the tonal quality of projected light.
This was back in the early nineties and Brakhage was bemoaning the fact that electronic light (video) was not yet capable of replicating the subtle tonal ranges available to the artist through film stocks. What frustrated him was that these film stocks were slowly disappearing as video took hold, becoming the dominant production medium, denying artists access to a series of unique colour palettes as manufacture of each film stock ceased. He equated it to the reduction of a painter’s palette from an infinite range of shades in rich oils to a basic set of standard children’s paintbox colours.
At a digital arts festival some years later I saw maybe 20 new digital screen based works and it was evident the expression in the content of the image had been undermined by their restriction to a simple electronic colour palette. All those films looked like they were made in the same software. Since then we’ve evolved and although the colour ranges might have increased to the point where TV can replicate the colours we can get from our high res computer screens, the new HD formats to leave something to be desired in their unstable over processed image. In many ways the HD image is fantastic but now when I look back at the soft neon pastels and the abrasive glitch distortions of early video art, particularly on laserdisc, which captures these electronic palettes so much better than VHS could, you can see what Brakhage was driving at.
I saw some video synthesiser work in Berlin this year that genuinely moved me – not because of the sharp focus or the whizz-bang seamless special digital effects but simply because of the fluid movement and the tonal range of the projected light – the colours good old fashioned analogue electronics can produce.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a great fan of the digital revolution and its opening up of access to the means of production for everyone, but I’m thinking we’re not fully done with analogue yet and we should have a rummage through that skip before its contents ends up in the cultural landfill.