Blind Optics

Gabriel Menotti
How is cinema redefined in the course of ongoing technological developments? At first, one might think that the incorporation of digital computers would radically change the norms of movie production, distribution and exhibition. Nevertheless, the exact opposite seems to be happening: while these practices retain their mediatic specificity, it is technology that changes its nature, as it becomes localised within the cinematographic circuit. For instance, after it has been installed in a projection booth, a computer should be operated only in function of movie screenings. Thus, multiple characteristics of the machine are suppressed in order to comply with its use as an apparatus for film exhibition.

This rationalisation of technique within cinema goes unnoticed precisely because the medium entails the parameters of its own evaluation. Matthew Kirschenbaum calls this a medial ideology: one that makes us approach cinematographic devices not in their own terms, but according to the logic of representation that supposedly characterises the medium. This logic sets the conditions for an element to be cinematographic – for example, by establishing how many pixels an image should have in order to attain the resolution proper to the medium. Such epistemological bias filters most possibilities of new technologies out of cinema right from the outset.

Optical Media

But if we are allowed to ask whether computers can produce images as clear as film, why can’t we expect cinema to be as interactive as a Web browser? To further probe into the relation between media and technique, it seems necessary to avoid the medium’s own parameters. Taking a step in this direction, we might adopt Friedrich Kittler’s idea of optical media instead – a classification based not on the cognitive effects of cinema, but rather on the operational principles of its apparatus. This attention to optics can be useful to disclose mechanisms of figurative representation. Paul Virilio has previously used it to distinguish between the ways different media technologies organise space and time. However, such an approach also risks obfuscating even more the artificiality of technique. To analyse the apparatus as purely optical is to overlook their physical constitution, which is also mechanical and chemical, electromagnetic and computational.

Blind Optics

In order to bring these particularities of technology to the surface, we could borrow a strategy that some artists have employed with aesthetic ends: that of circumventing, disrupting or altogether denying the camera’s eye. A long tradition of video art and experimental film, recently joined by practices such as generative programming, presents visuals that are not conveyed by clear lenses; visuals that mostly result from celluloid stock, electric circuits and digital codification. Looking at these pieces, we are confronted with a sort of blind optics: images produced not by the means of abstracting the world, but through the abstraction of apparatuses themselves.

Pushing forward the horizon of a potentially invisible cinema, blind optics exposes the normally overlooked materiality of the medium, making it easier to appreciate technological development and grasp the suppressed differences between physical supports. In other words, interrupting the gaze becomes a way to see more clearly. From this perspective, the underpinnings of cinema appear not as a neutral channel throughout which autonomous images flow, but rather as a complex entanglement of processes of inscription and transmission, continuously creating such images.

Works cited

Kirschenbaum, Matthew. Mechanisms: New Media and Forensic Imagination. Cambridge: MIT, 2009. Print

Kittler, Friedrich. Optical Media. UK: Polity, 2010. Print.

Virilio, Paul. “Big Optics.” On Justifying The Hypothetical Nature Of Art And The Non-Identicality Within The Object World. Ed. Robert Fleck. Koln: Walther Koenig bookshop, 1992. 82-93. Print.

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