Well, you can’t win ’em all. Over-ambition gets to the best of us, and sometimes a somewhat incoherent lesson is the result. Consider this post to be less of a how-to guide, and more of a postmortem on what is clearly still a work-in-progress.
Migration is a topic that, from the beginning, I knew I wanted to tackle in my Avant-Garde Film and Video Art course this term. US immigration reared its head quite explicitly in my week spent on Bill Brown’s The Other Side, but I also wanted to try out some more conceptually far-flung approaches to the topic. Key here were two texts: Hito Steyerl’s article “In Defense of the Poor Image,” which re-casts image quality as an image of global politics, turning a close eye on how media objects circulate around the world in the current neoliberal order, and Jacqueline Goss’ video Stranger Comes to Town (2007), which tells tales of entry into the US that have been metaphorized into World of Warcraft machinima.
I thought I could draw out some sort of grand theme from this material, about how the circulation of images maps on to the migration of people in our contemporary political regime. It turns out I wasn’t really up to this task. And it’s a shame, too, because I dearly love the videos I assembled for this week, and wish I could have done better by them.
[Update: I asked for feedback in the last day of class, and it turns out that several students actually really liked this class session. They thought its sketched-out argument left them room to think, and really appreciated having to fill in the blanks themselves. Apparently, for some students, it was perfect seminar material. Their only real complaint was that I could have expanded this material, and stretched it out over several weeks! So take the self-criticism in this post with a grain of salt, I guess.]
I paired up the Steyerl article with three videos, in the end: Stranger Comes to Town, Lossless #2 (Rebecca Baron and Douglas Goodwin, 2008), and Steyerl’s own How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013). In my mind, there was a coherent thread between these. It didn’t really pan out for in-class discussion, I think. With more preparation and practice, plus some tweaking of the readings and the exact lineup of videos, it still shows some promise for the future.
Discussion began with Lossless #2, which enjoyed the most direct link with Steyerl’s “Poor Image” article. The video consists of clips and highlights of Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), melting together in a haze of low-bitrate distortions. Crucially, Baron and her collaborator Goodwin did not create these distortions by their own hand: Lossless #2 is not an example of the “datamoshing” school of glitch art, in which artists manually remove keyframes from highly-compressed video files. Instead, Lossless #2 was made by them obsessively torrenting Meshes of the Afternoon, finding the most exquisitely damaged video copies of the canonical masterpiece they could, and stitching those together. It is a record of all of the imperfect versions of this film that exist, as compromised video files on the hard drives of so many computers, seeding out into the world to reproduce new, even more distorted copies from the primal scene of torrent traffic.
The resonances with Steyerl’s “Poor Image” article were clear. Not to be too reductive, in that typically academic way, but Steyerl’s article is, in a certain sense, version 2.0 of Walter Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” essay.
Benjamin chronicles a typically 20th century regime shift: from the old fetishistic values of art, with individual works of art manifesting as single artifacts endowed with an individual “aura,” to a new machine-driven model of mass art, of copies that circulate without an original, spreading along to audiences around the globe in a way that traditional art could never begin to attempt.
Steyerl, meanwhile, chronicles a smaller, but still significant, 21st century regime shift. Reproducibility has been with us for over a century, now. We no longer fetishize the aura of the original. Capitalism, though, requires us to fetishize something, so we’ve moved on from fetishizing the personal experience of viewing a painting in a museum setting to fetishizing image quality and fidelity. But here, too, a revolution is underway: accessibility is, against capitalism’s wishes, winning out over fidelity. As Blu-ray sales crater, the MPEG-4 rises. “The poor image has been uploaded, downloaded, shared, reformatted, and reedited,” Steyerl writes. “It transforms quality into accessibility.” Fussiness over image quality is not politically neutral. An insistence on visual perfection serves capital; a preference for digital circulation and proliferation serves the proletariat. “Poor images are thus popular images—images that can be made and seen by the many.”
I asked the class to consider what it meant that, when I showed Meshes of the Afternoon in class, I insisted on projecting a Blu-ray version of it, from Flicker Alley’s Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film, 1920–1970 boxed set. How did that initially set up the politics of the class? Avant-garde cinema is now more available to curious viewers than it ever has been in the past. I showed my students Owen Land’s Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles Etc. (1966) via a terrible-quality video posted on Ubuweb, and Michael Snow’s ←→ [Back and Forth] (1969) via an even more terrible-quality video uploaded to YouTube. But why was it that I was still fussy about Meshes in the Afternoon? Here, I encouraged students to consider my role as a gatekeeper, in some way aligned with capital, pooh-poohing the potential of the unauthorized celestial multiplex.
The Lossless #2 discussion went well enough. It’s when I turned to Stranger Comes to Town—a crucial hinge point in the class’ overall flow—that things started to go a bit off the rails.
Stranger Comes to Town documents the experience of several long-term visitors to the US (on student visas, work visas, etc.) dealing with US Department of Homeland Security’s US Visit program. We hear audio interviews with an number of US visa-holders, who are re-cast on the video’s image track as World of Warcraft characters, wandering around various locations in that game’s fantasy setting of Azeroth. Sometimes, we are greeted with straight machinima, culled from the WoW engine. Other times, Goss digitally paints over WoW, giving her interviewees “rotoscoped” avatars sporting a distinctly lo-fi Flash aesthetic.
I’ve taught Stranger Comes to Town several times now, and found that students usually connect with it fairly strongly. I’ve also learned some tremendously valuable stuff from students who, unlike me, are actually Warcraft players. For instance, there’s a reason that Goss’s interviewees are all given Horde race avatars (Orcs, Blood Elves, and the like). Within Blizzard’s lore for the Warcraft franchise, the Horde races—Orcs in particular—have a contentious relation to the native Alliance races of Azeroth. Arriving in Azeroth via a Dark Portal, the Orcs are, in quite literally, “illegal aliens,” and have played the role of both invaders and refugees over the course of Blizzard’s long and winding tale. With a history that includes both attempts at conquest and relegation to internment camps, the Horde races make a good prism to examine the US’s shifting attitudes towards immigrants, refugees, and outsiders looking for work.
The trick that I needed to pull in this particular class, though, was to find a way to balance discussion of the video’s visual aesthetics with its political implications. I thought that Goss’s mix of machinima and lo-fi Flash animation connected to Steyerl’s “poor image” concept, and I thought the video might serve as a way to transition from a discussion of the circulation of poor-quality images to a discussion of the circulation of people across national borders in our current political era. It was a tough, conceptually abstract trick to pull off, and I have to say I flubbed it. I didn’t have a clear road map laid out to guide discussion through this transition, and I’m afraid that my students just came away confused.
It’s a provocative intersection, and I remain convinced that it can be done right, under the right circumstances. I just didn’t provide a model for doing so in my first attempt at pulling it off.
Finally, we ended with How Not to Be Seen. It is a rich piece, one that has become rather inescapable at conferences and such in recent years. (Certainly, she is a force to be reckoned with in contemporary experimental moving-image culture.) I think my students liked it, but, given that I had by this point botched a crucial transition, I don’t think it fit well into the overall flow of the class.
My idea was that I could simultaneously have a conversation about how the video rejects standard documentary visual aesthetics in favor of playful imperfections (such as the “shoot this background for real” messages that pop up over what seem to be placeholder images near the video’s end), and what it has to say about living and moving about under our current surveillance regime. I think the resulting discussion was a tiny bit more successful that my attempt at unpacking Stranger Comes to Town, but the general momentum had been lost.
I continued this theme of deliberate imperfection into the next week, where we talked about aesthetics of queer failure in the likes of Sadie Benning’s PixelVision videos and Jack Smith and Bob Fleischner’s aborted Blonde Cobra projects (rescued and “completed” by Ken Jacobs in 1963). This went a lot better, because its concepts were easier to grasp. In hindsight, I really should have started with it (it made chronological sense, as well), and I don’t remember why I didn’t.
Looking ahead, as much as I like Stranger Comes to Town, I think it likely should have been separated from the larger context of this lesson. My inclusion of it was an act of hubris, a pursuit of a high-level abstract connection that I should have known would be a struggle to make persuasively. I do like the connections that can be drawn between Lossless #2 and Steyerl’s “poor image” concept. I also think that Baron and Steyerl make good bedfellows, in general—How Not to Be Seen, for instance, could in the future perhaps be more productively bundled with something like Baron’s How Little We Know of Our Neighbors (2005) and Deborah Stratman’s In Order to Not Be Here (2002). Ah, well. Connections missed in the pursuit of incoherent ambition. At least I gave it a shot.