of the Abstract
In the Void of the Tele-Audio-Visual
essay for SYNTHETICS video art exhibition, Power Museum,
Sydney - 1998
in a hotel in Washington DC, Christmas 1983. Right near
the airport, a 26 storey building in the middle of a wasteland
of vacant industrial lots. I'm in room 2609. A great view
of nothing. The TV is on the televending cable channel.
The screen is divided into a dizzy configuration of boxes,
frames, close-ups, text scrolls, flashing icons, superimposed
logos. It's a map on the verge of disorienting its own territories
due to its desire to convey maximum data, with full impact
at every second. All hierarchical reading structure is vanquished
as the screen is terrorized by the impossible amount of
information it must contain and impart.
The more I intake this overload, the more abstract it becomes.
That cheap diamond glistening under studio lights shimmers,
wavering somewhere between cathode ray phosphorescence and
scan line approximation. The striped tie the host wears
vibrates in a fluctuating rainbow of RGB hue. The horizontal
panning and vertical scrolling of the innumerable text fields
play havoc with my persistence of vision. Sometimes the
text flickers like a strobe light; other times the serifs
create a visual rhythm which render the text all but illegible.
Colours clash, vibrate, bleed in that most alien of colour
fields: the televisual palette.
The sound is turned down. But '0' volume level of the monitor's
speaker is but a pale denominator. A series of microtonal
timbrel shifts audibly modulate the room's electrical ground
hum in synch with the change of luminous content on the
screen matrix. That low noise grind that tells you you're
in a hotel room watching cable. A hum that speaks of bad
wiring, electrical interference, and data overload as 26
floors of valued guests are spinning out watching the same
televending channel. I can play harmonics with the base
tone by turning up the fader on my bedside lamp.
Add American air-conditioning and the mere smell of take-out
pizza from the room next door and you have the kind of synaesthetic
trip that 60s drugs championed and 90s interactivity touts.
Cable inadvertently created a strange phenomenon by the
end of the 70s: a pure abstraction of the tele-audio-visual
apparatus through mechanisms designed to present hardcore
info-data. The weather channels. The stock market channels.
The racing channels. The channel that tells what's on your
channel later. The channel that tells you what's on every
channel simultaneously. 'Affordable' technologies servicing
consumer demands for 'knowing' about something. Anything.
Synchronous with the burgeoning Video Art scenes around
the world, the tele-audio-visual apparatus was attaining
a genealogical identity predicated on abstraction despite
whatever content was being artificially injected into its
corpus. The televending phenomenon achieved (albeit under
its peculiar terms) the same height of non-narrative/anti-linear/meta-visual
abstraction that Video Art sought to generate through taking
the massage out of the medium and returning it to a chronically
mis-representational state. This is not to say one manifestation
of video is superior to the other, but rather that their
pursuits in abstraction are parallel strategies. The vital
germ of the experimental arts - a small but important one
- is its dogged and dogmatic pursuit of any mechanisms which
confound the illusory, corrupt the manipulative and destabilize
the referential. Abstraction is both the means and the state
which much electronic experimentalism explores. To its detriment,
this is often done with an 'acultural' attitude - as if
by ignoring the media spectrum of suspect and susceptible
manipulations a pure or total art is guaranteed. Fact is,
the most intensely 'informative' media exposes its own abstraction
by default, and should therefore be accordingly acknowledged
for its effects. Video Art - despite some of its oppositional
aims - was committed to generating an experience whose rigour
and purity matched the bluntness and relentlessness of televending's
In Jonathan Kaplan's OVER THE EDGE (1979) a 10 year old
kid wears sunglasses, drops LSD and watches the test pattern
after midnight. Not so drug-inspired, I used to watch TV
snow as a kid and get heady from my optical muscles creating
swirling spiral patterns on the screen while being enveloped
in white noise. There is something attractive, hypnotic,
entrancing, seductive, numbing about the TV screen - something
in its radiance of multifarious waveforms, its subliminal
rhythmic pulsations. It's a form of base interactivity which
Interactivity (capital 'I') thinks it can narrate, illustrate,
eventuate - but to which it can only bring grandiose techno-claims
of reinventing the screen. Video Art - especially the synthetic,
abstract variants - exhibited moments of incisiveness, creating
- sometimes unintentionally - fissures of existential pondering
in the face of incomprehensible audio-visuality. This state
- an art void, if you will - has always shared an uncomfortable
relation to the consumer stupor which breeds within the
haunting ambience of shopping mall culture. A dimension
where piped music, disembodied voices and glowing monitors
in multiple configurations collectively beam a distilled
tele-audio-visuality to create a sensory environment wherein
the air is alive and walls flicker. Both the Fine and Electronic
Arts panic when their distance from such terrains becomes
blurred or non-apparent. But whereas Abstract Expressionism
created a half century of bland, stifling Bank Art, the
tele-audio-visual apparatus which landscapes the most alienating
of our infotainment surroundings also created Video Art.
Such an Art/Culture nexus is rare.
The intensity of abstraction when in front of the screen
can be transcendental. Video tapes of burning fireplaces.
Cable TV broadcasts of fish tanks. Clothes stores with music
video clips on video walls. Electronics stores with store-front
monitors showing what happens in the front of their store.
Train station security cameras relaying platform activity
on clusters of monitors. Bank TVs playing their TV ads with
the sound turned down. Perfume counters running POD snippets
looped on small monitors. Aeroplane monitors in flight showing
you how far you are from where you will be. 3 frame animations
playing on an ATM screens to show you your cash coming out.
All suggest that information is being conveyed - but all
can just as easily make you lose sense of time and place
and forget what you thought you were watching.
The TV screen's propensity for abstraction can be equally
traumatic. Parents dread it and set time limits on its intake.
Teachers decry it and ban kids from drawing TEENAGE MUTANT
NINJA TURTLES in art class (true story). But nowhere is
its traumatizing effect more apparent than in the cinema
- that archaic machine of chemical glistening and gilded
story-telling. Optically-biased film people love that big
white screen and its porous softness. They get wet watching
the planetary surface of grain which swims before their
eyes. It's their abstract trip - but they insist on filtering
it through a range of humanist discourses so that the experience
is rendered relevant, social, meaningful. Film people will
cry until the next millennium about video's rape of the
filmic grain, streaming its minutiae of texture along zapping
scan lines and through ungainly pixels. Tres photographique.
Quelle 19th Century. The 'charm' of cinema disguises an
ontological xenophobia wherein the photographic is pornographically
pawed over, while the tele-visual is akin to the toxic day-glo
plastic wrappers of hi-carbo chocolate bars. (It goes without
saying that the coffee-table cine-bourgeois who wax lyrically
over 'beautiful images' have zero understanding of the sonic.)
The power of video - as a medium, as a phenomenon, as a
virus - is its ability to voice with deafening clarity the
precepts of modernism (newness) and postmodernism (non-uniqueness).
As cinema slowly degenerated into an enclave of 'beauty
in a world gone mad', it degenerated into the most rudimentary
ruts of representation: the painterly, the textural, the
elegiac, the symbolic. Video became the ugly teenage mutant
offspring. With phosphorescence for pubescence and algorithms
for acne, video eschewed cinema's formal visual codes for
a net of phenomenological fragments which belched synthesized
images and sounds born of electrical current traversing
electronic circuitry. And like the archetypal dirty punk
daughter of university lecturers, video wore ugliness as
both a self-inflicted affiliation with the abject and as
a sign of aesthetic otherness. Its aesthetic qualities were
noticeable and undeniable: the illegality of red; the fuzzy
chromo-key outline; the splotchy patches of down stream
keying; the flagrant declaration of its newness and its
non-uniqueness. This was first degree Video: it looked like
nothing else, and what it had was often presumed to be things
neither it nor anyone actually wanted. It was and remains
This presumption - akin to the belief that the punk daughter
will settle down and have kids anyway - created a second
degree Video: that of the rasterized anti-aliased screen
surface. A surface which declares I may be video, but I
can be painterly, textural, elegiac, symbolic. Like, I am
abstract but I am capable of great representational effects.
I can emulate biological form; I can move with quaint Muybridge
affection; I can render globules of sweat on the skin of
an endangered species; I can make things go out of focus.
This bastard video tries to act historical and learned,
but it remains an effete figure hiding behind an aesthetic
visage produced by the gross techno-steroids which are transforming
all applications of Electronic Art into artless 'state-of-the-art'
In Frank Marshall's CONGO (1996) a whole pile of dumb humans
dress in dumb ape suits and interface with a whole mass
of 'smart' (not) technologies. Just like in those IBM ads
where research grant dudes deep in some South American rain
forest (no doubt saving mankind as we knew it) use portable
ariels on their lap tops to connect to the Internet and
download information about dangerous snakes. (Like, why
not do your research before you get there?) CONGO - advertised
as "an event-packed adventure filled with state-of-the-art
technology and primal fear" - fetishizes the relay
and exchange of data and information like a yippie who read
too much McLuhan too late and now runs an Information Technology
business. Screens upon screens upon screens fill up the
cinematic screen, in an attempt to create that desirable
'information overload' effect - but coming nowhere near
my Washington hotel experience of watching the televending
cable channel. Typical of so many cruddy over-designed 90s
techno films (the trash cinema for future generations),
the televisual is invited into the cinematic realm, as cinema
desperately tries to survive as a medium with identity.
But equally typical of 90s style mergers, no genuine mutation
occurs. Only a kind of ontological fattening. 'State-of-the-art'
technologies at the service of the cinema continue the second
degree video effect: a denial of its synthetics, a refusal
of its artificialism, a co-option of its abstraction.
Despite the 90s trumpeting 'special effects' as a panacea
for the ailing corpus of cinema, little is appreciated about
how virally integrated the tele-audio-visual apparatus became
to that very same corpus. The 80s witnessed video govern
film post-production - particular sound posting. The filmic
standard of 24fps was altered to 25fps in consideration
of the video monitor's scan line rate. SMPTE time code became
a primary means of sound synchronization in post-production
facilities. Sound was designed, edited and mixed to video
telecines. In short, once the wrap party had finished and
all the chauvinist men and women in black leather jackets
and baseball caps ('the industry') moved on to another 'show',
the mole people in darkened post production studios worked
video technologies like the cleaning crew at Disneyland:
invisibly, silently, unknowingly. Therein grew the first
wave of true high-fidelity surround sound design, where
an amazing array of analogue and digital audio technologies
outlaid the algorithmic templates which visual digital technologies
would employ throughout the 90s. A decade of recording,
sampling and MIDI applications predates and defines what
many term the 'digital era' of scanning, bit-mapping, rendering,
compositing and animating.
In short, cinema was infected by the tele-audio-visual a
long time ago. John Carpenter's THE THING (1981) alludes
to what cinema would become. Holed up in his cabin in the
Antarctic, Kurt Russell plays computer chess on a lo-res
screen - and loses all the time. He later uses the same
computer screen to simulate the rate of alien infection
among his crew. The cinema screen engulfs an extreme close-up
of lo-res giant pixels as PAC MAN-style computer graphics
simulate infection, assimilation and simulation. Narrative
probability and biological certainty are conveyed not through
any grand operatic mise-en-scene, but through the harsh
and unforgiving abstraction of the computer screen. Similar
scenes increase in number and complexity, from Ridley Scott's
ALIEN (1979) and Michael Radleigh's WOLFEN (1981) through
to John McTiernan's PREDATOR and Paul Verhoven's ROBOCOP
(both 1987). The Other is depicted via radar scans, ocular
disfiguration, thermal readings, optical de-rendering -
anything but standard photochemical processes. The 'look'
of the other in cinema is tele-visual.
While the 90s saw cinema use of battery of high-end (an
80s term also used in drug trafficking and MIAMI VICE) computer
technologies to mat, move and mobilize digitized data and
make it behave cinematically, the video grain persisted
as an interference and rupture into the seamless post-produced
world that remains entirely unconvincing in JURASSIC PARK,
THE MASK, TWISTER, INDEPENDENCE DAY, LOST IN SPACE, GODZILLA
and so many other SGI-trumpeted affairs. Films like BENNY'S
VIDEO (1991), TRESPASS (1992) and MENACE II SOCIETY (1993)
employ close-up video grain for hyper-realist narrative
purpose - not to illusorily fuse with the cinematic, but
to scratch, sear and scar its homogenised surface. 'Hyper
realist' not in any essential sense, but simply as a signifier
of immediacy: the finished gloss of 'the movies' - even
'gritty'-styled ones - is always a dimension away from me,
a realm removed. Video, on the other hand, is in my face,
on my retinas, at my fingertips every day. Its pixilated
terrain commandeers my field of vision more than the sky
or ground. This is no big deal that requires a WIRED-style
pompous pronouncement. It's just the stuff that's around
me. Cinema's flirtation with the video grain - zooming in
too close on those pixels, abstracting strange acts of sex
and violence - touches the skin of my eye and reminds me
of the less-than-grand void which I inhabit daily.
I'm in a Tabaret pokie bar in Melbourne, Easter 1998. I'm
with a whole pile of dumb humans dressed in dumb human suits.
The carpet is loud, the walls are invisible, the music is
pungent, the air is fetid, the light is deafening. I'm tripping.
The monitors - Amigas - are first degree video. Hard, biting
RGB surfaces. Reduced palettes, iconic illustrations, mega-lo-res.
The sounds are a mix of low-bit samples and low-memory digital
synthesis, coldly burning my eardrums like dry ice on flesh.
No second degree soothing here. Just hardcore ugly servicing
a sublime existentialism that allows you to throw money
away for no real reason at all. Tabaret pokies - the Target
chain to the Casino's David Jones centrality - create a
tele-audio-visual drone whose hyperactive brilliance withholds
the ultimate of screen voids. Televending requires a phone
call and a credit card number. Poker machines merge the
pornographic act of consumption with the physical act of
handing over money. Men and women sit jerking off the machine,
hoping to get it to orgasm and spew back whatever they put
into it. The screen visuals reduce iconography to a viciously
hypnotic abstraction of colours and movements, somewhere
between the flashing of neon logos, the rotating of lenticular
billboards and the spinning of roadside signs. Kinetics
of machine and human become one.
The more I observe this kineticism, the more abstract it
Fear of the abstract terrorizes social intercourse and discourse.
All words, images, sounds, colours, smells are forced to
communicate with purpose and intent. But why fear the abstract?
Why fight becoming a zombie in front of the tele-audio-visual
screen? Why cling so pathetically to one's authorial voice
and the delusion of communication? As if you're some transformed
ape in a tacky movie like Stanley Kubrick's 2001 (1969),
enlightened through consciousness and the realization of
a higher plane of existence, gravitating to representationalism
as a demonstration of your linguistic pre-occupation to
understand, uncover, comprehend. Video's hyper-abstraction
- from its tingling screen to its sub harmonic drone - can
be as powerful an experience as any nature has to offer
when one contemplates its essential qualities.
The more this is ignored, the more aggressively we get the
Revenge of the Lo-Res. Only square nightclubs project SGI-computer
animations as if they are a sign of some technologically
advanced civilization. In typical 303 and 808 style, cool
clubs have PAC MAN, SPACE INVADERS and GALAGA. Even Microsoft
tries to be hip by simulating large-pixel screen wipes similar
to those on old Fairlight Video Synthesizers, while Bowie's
HEROES (1977) phase-shifts across the sound field. Sure
- it's all retro design cliche, but it is nonetheless a
reaction against the anti-tele-audio-visual textures which
attempt to soften our gaze and sublimate our look into a
deluded world of representational effects. In the Lo-Res,
there can be no pretence to anything but abstraction.
In between watching spiral patterns on TV noise as a kid,
I recall being told that in the future we would be living
on the moon and riding dune buggies to school. Instead I've
got Microsoft asking me "Where do you want to go to
today?" and delivering me crappy J-PEGS of the rings
of Saturn. On my monitor they look like old skool Video
The more I stare at it, the more abstract it all becomes.