Images Festival 2009 - Blog #4
Ben Coonley's Power Point lecture (or demolition) Talking Points and Talking Ponies
(Remapping the Apparatus: Cinematographic Specificity and Hybrid Media) began with two pretty serious looking films - one his own student project Titanic and the other one by heavy-duty seventies structuralist J.J. Murphy. The Titanic film utilized audio sections of the James Cameron/Celine Dion epic as bedrock for the filmmaker's leader-striping and flickering and other serious abstractions. The Murphy film inserted a giant unsinking ice-cube (perhaps the Titanic?) in front of a camera and then used a wide spectrum of filters to get strobic. Both films are strong on deep blue and an almost crimson red. The student film was impressive, and the mentor's a landmark.
But then it became Power Point time. Power Point is an omnipresent feature of digital technologies. The cutely provocative imp named Ben Coonley announced his intention to re-contextualize the film-theorizing of Jean-Louis Baudry (not merely a structuralist but a materialist and apparatnik) to not just media-art work but also to the less respectable wings of digi-culture - pedagogical materials such as educational and training films, as well as You Tube "masterpieces". Coonley set up his own pedagogical expectations and then allowed the malfunctioning functions of Power Point to sabotage those expectations. The ghosts of the machine became animated (and animations) and not only came to life but indeed run amok. It was as if the cat not only spared the mouse, but subsequently let the mouse become a raging anarchist.
Structuralism, and indeed other formalist premises, does bear resemblance to infantilism. Repeating absurdist actions or premises beyond a point of saturation while adhering to a maddeningly obvious logic, constructing sand castles prone to collapse and destruction, and so on and so on - well, these are tropes of both the rigorous and the ridiculous. Coonley deployed the intrinsic mechanical stupidity of the digi-video apparatus to present mind numbing literal puns (open sores rather than open source), and he displayed a willingness to let the animals take over the zoo. Not just the cat, but also the pony. He never quite lost a sharp observational edge, which came to the fore in his final video which pondered and lambasted the metaphysical hubris of the artist Christo (he of the unnecessary second vowel).
I did find myself thinking that, underneath Coonley's childish willingness to let the chips fall where they may, there was a critique of the very possibility of apparatus formalism being applicable to video as opposed to film. The mechanics or the apparatus of the digital world are not those of the film strip and a projector - they are of electronic circuits that frequently do go short or postal and create their own logistics that have nought to do with their humans' intentions. Conley's videos did not miss, for example, any singular possible kitsch transition that so many high-tech media-producers consider to be essential to the material (and not just eighties music-video nostalgists). If a portal option suddenly blocked the road, then damn the original destination and hallelujah for the portal.
But the impish artist's wit was often acutely acerbic. The most "educational" of the videos was the one in which an ingénue (Coonley himself) suggested to his boss that a certain product would be profitable but also environmentally toxic. The boss of course wants the profit. Then the ingénue suggests a product that would be profitable and also environmentally healthy, and the boss emphasized the essentiality of profit while not caring about the environmental benefits. The video-spot asks whether, in both cases, the boss is deliberately intending to harm or help the environment. The answer? Harm registers more clearly than help, whether active or passive. But... who would not want to have their cake and eat it too? Ben Coonley knows that the humans say one thing and then let the machines do another. That's why he prefers to let the pony do the talking.
A connective trope of this 22nd Images Festival is that of print - the festival's ghost masterwork is The Print Generation by none other than J.J. Murphy. When modernist film strategies such as print degeneration and death of the author enter into post-video digital technologies, questions such as what exactly constitutes a print are raised, and then forgotten. Coonley's show and tell has me eagerly anticipating the upcoming Live Images Fifth presentation - Hanne Mugaas and Cory Arcangel's Art Since 1950 (According to the Internet). Walter Benjamin did indeed take notice of the erosion of Aura in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction, and Walter was indeed prescient.