on gifs [ storifying the latent content of film/television narrative media ]

Gifs do so many things, I’m not even going to list all of those things! Right now I’m thinking about gifs as amplifiers of particular moments from narrative media. In these pieces, they strip moments from narrative, expanding the gesture used to tell a story while erasing the original context.

a moment from Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood”

This eternal moment, stripped from narrative, reminds me of tween frames in the animation process. As an artist who has learned how to make in many kinds of media, I often think of the making process while looking at an art object (or other thing). Tweening is the frame-by-frame drawing that carries the image from moment a to moment b. Its where animation really happens. Skilled animators’ tweens inform how the story is told.

But-and-also – gifs operate with a more cinematic set of visual references, thanks to copy/remix culture. They often inhabit the vocabulary of filler moments.  The embellishments in a televised or film-presented narrative used to allow time to pass, allow the viewer to update their story, create rhythm or pace for the narrative. These moments, over time, become the vocabulary of unconscious narrative of a film/television-presented story.

unconscious narrative the consistant (or inconsistant, depending on the skill of the filmmaker) backdrop woven of actors’ gestures, filler shots, setting, shot framing, color, mood, tone. The assemblage of choices related to non-verbal or not-plot content that provides a consistant ground for the ‘plot’ / cause-and-effect narrative / story, which is spoken or explicit. The language of film that operates outside of verbal story, the elements that make film/television an art form discrete from other storytelling media.

The gif can particularize moments from this unconscious language. The elements which we recognize as part of the assembly of a particular story.

Ryan Seslow has been developing discrete elements in gif form for quite some time. His characters and repeated making-gestures arrive on the screen-canvas of his website & other internet feeds. Recently he assembled several into a sequence.


Telling Stories : a gif by Ryan Seslow

Ryan steps into the space of a story. Its liminal – it is not yet a story – it is a projection field for a story of my invention. It invites me to create relationships between jump-cut moments. We automatically work to create relationships, as storifying machines, as viewers. Like we discover the Virgin Mary’s face in a waterstain or a fried tortilla.

Looking, looking back. The screen looking back at us – the portraited pretty lady winks (usually she’s the object in the gallery) its the gaze of the inhabited object – and then the gaze of others looking back –

new work [ oldschool : newmedia ]

selfie [ oldschool / newmedia ]

The negatives I’m using for this process were shot & processed long before computers became part of my process – –

When I met animation processes, it was, at first, printmaking and scanning and hand-manipulation. Then hand-altered 16mm film. I’ve particularly missed that, the bleach and salt and razorblades and rubber gloves and stamps, glue, glitter and tape.

I figured out how to do that again, recently.

i.thou [ final cut ] [ 2007 – 2013 ]

they found the dvd in the sand under her body. i don’t know where she is.

agency // archetypes // authority & doubt // caged bird // certainty // cult of the dead girl // data-altered video // deconstruction // doctrine // durga // epistemology // film // hallucination // pathoshadenfreude // social identity // the [ tomb ] empty [ womb ] // voyeur culture // witness //

experimental digital video.
visuals : avidemux, ffmpegx, quicktime 7 pro, final cut pro 6-X. audio : apple logic 9.

all production : jessica fenlon

view the first movement here. screenings / exhibitions tba

the comprehensibility of dying squid

Earlier this evening I saw Bill Viola’s “Hatsu-Yume (First Dream)” in an intimate screening. The artist was present, along with faculty members and an audience of thirty to forty people. We sat in a small auditorium in a small, excellent liberal arts school.

“Hatsu-Yume (First Dream)” is about eighty-five minutes long. On the surface, it scanned like Chris Marker’s film, Sans Soleil. I say ‘on the surface’ because it was just a moment that inspired that connection – the moment ‘pachinko’ is on screen, and then, later, a man lighting a cigarette, one of the only completed human gestures in the piece. If Sans Soleil had been made on video and without the narrative, then they could be twins. Instead they are distant relatives, only connected by the fact that the audience is considering moving images that, scene by scene, unfold like a photo-roman . . . if each of the photos is a technically-perfect, gorgeous long moving-image shot. Oh, and both works were shot in Japan – Viola’s in its entirety, while Marker’s Sans Soleil was mostly filmed there.

What’s the distinction between video and film? As Christopher Zimmerman put it in the liner notes for the evening’s get together, “”Where film is a succession of individual still images … video consists of constantly vibrating signals.” That’s key. In each work’s case, the maker’s use of the form is perfectly mirrored in the expression of content presented by that form. Marker’s film is a series of shots, of images expanded. Marker uses mostly jump cuts as he provides a long sequence of images which become narrative, when paired with the voiceover.

Video, particularly analog video on tape, is about signal. Talking about his work this evening Viola repeatedly referred to signal. The technical metaphors for him, of signal being a way of accessing an inner world or imagined world, of signal’s liquidity, its nature as carrier of light ~ that’s the core of the medium for Bill Viola. The series of scenes transitioned by fade-to-black are usually slow-mo. Visual information shifts in a series of liminal perceptual spaces; the viewer can lose themselves in sensory input or decide to recognize the information displayed on the screen.


During Q&A I admitted to the artist that I was so tired I was closing my eyes in the middle of the opus. Viola interrupted me to reply, “That’s OK, I slept through parts myself.” About two-thirds of the way through the film there are shots of dying squid, on a Japanese fishing boat. They’re beautiful. Captured in the highest fidelity Sony cameras available at the time, glossy, a particular coral peach, they are just dying. We watched them die, in slow motion.

Squid death was discussed by the academics with some horror. Kira Perov, Viola’s creative partner, spoke to the difficulty she had when they were originally shooting the work on the fishing boat. She struggled with the question of putting the equipment down to rescue the animals. It horrified her to watch them die.


Today, I took a long trip to a small town in Wisconsin to meet the artist, to see the work. Bill Viola’s work has sustained me for a long time. I am a multiple near death experience survivor; Viola’s own NDE experience deeply informs his work. His work is oxygen for me.

On a Greyhound bus I split my time between Twitter and Facebook attempting to find out if my Boston friends were OK. What in Gods name happened there. I somehow kept my stomach firmly in my belly, not becoming nauseous even though the fragments of information did not piece together. Made me disoriented. The speed of (dis)information, insistant squabbles about authenticity, tweets that stated “quit just retweeting things”. The utter lack of clarity as major news outlets chose the wrong information to publish to those who still use TV, and then retracted, then asserted something else.


The long slow shots of dying squid made sense. Watching the beautiful, projected analog video – no, I couldn’t look away. It was slow. In its slowness my mind and heart were allowed to come into a shared rhythm of comprehension that respected my whole being. Horrifying, yes, but in a comprehensible way, an acceptable way.

Now I pick out the shrapnel from the fragmented “communication” about the bombings at the Boston Marathon out of me. I have a bit of skill witnessing difficulty like this, I’ve practiced with the ‘poetics of annihilation’ attention/artwork over the years. Yes, I say, once again, media’s doing it wrong. I think we already know that.

The Fool Reversed, Part 2 : Wanna know how I got these scars?

We can also file this post under “the poetics of annihilation : entertainment edition”. Warning : this post meanders …

Batman’s world as a reflection of human psychology has always been pretty clear to me. The hero survived incomprehensible loss as a child. Upon becoming an adult he polices his own demons by catching and locking up human ones. Batman walks between worlds, as all trauma survivors do, the world of civilized humans that we all participate in every day and the world where the trauma happened. Batman makes his own rules, a means of regaining power in a world that rendered him powerless when he was a child. He works to keep a chaotic underworld repressed or at bay … the story elements become personifications of the processes of trauma survival, particularly, in this post, managing the chaos of the PTSD process.

Revisited The Dark Knight, the second Christopher Nolan Batman film, this week. In it, we meet one of the most powerful portrayals of antisocial criminal insanity put on film, Heath Ledger’s Joker.

Heath Ledger Joker

The Joker : With Makeup

He describes himself as the dog who wouldn’t know what to do with the ambulance if he caught it. He sets all the money on fire, sets about killing yet another gang leader and asks “what a hungry dog will do for food”. He knows human motivation, human reactivity, and he sets fire to it whenever possible in ever-escalating scenarios. It doesn’t even seem to matter to him that one set of ideas succeeds or fails; he simply moves on to the next in a series of intense escalations.

Early on in the film the audience meets him through a series of his crimes. He asks of his victims, “Wanna know how I got these scars?” He tells Gambol one story, he tells Rachel another. In either situation there’s an invitation to the game the audience may be playing, that of, this horribly evil character can become comprehensible through the injury that created him. The Joker turns this notion on its head by telling different stories in each situation. He denies us the ability to relate to him, which makes him all the more terrifying as a character.

Scars without makeup

Joker Scarred, Without Makeup

There’s something else here, some other truth about relating to difficulty of any kind. Looking to the deep past to discover the source of present difficulty, or the reason why? Giant waste of time. The Joker forces those around him to deal with him on his terms. In the present. Doesn’t matter how he got those scars. His face is scarred and you’re the one looking into it. You’re the one confronted with the difficulty of him. His face is scarred and the scars themselves are scary, they make him ‘other’ in a way that unscarred faces are not. They cast him outside of ordinary interactions.

The movie documents the creation of social self through face, and the alteration of persona through its mutilation, through Harvey “Two-Face” Dent’s scarring accident. Harvey’s loss as an adult undoes him, as does the Joker’s visit to his hospital room to initiate him into an existence as a force rather than a specific human being.

Trauma survival has been described to me as the undoing of personality that Buddhists seek through enlightenment, via sudden extreme difficulty. The process of assimilating change quickly determines whether or not the human being involved is able to successfully integrate the EVENT into everyday life. Some traumas affect the biological mind in ways that point to deep psychological and physical connections of selfhood that have not begun to have been studied by science.

Story-cycles like Batman present the logic of trauma and its un-rational, yet logical, effects on persona in ways that touch on the universal difficulties of trauma. Why are the three plot-movers in this show masked? Batman wears a mask to enter into his second identity. The Joker’s mutilated face defines his relationship with the larger culture. And Two-Face, his ‘birth process’ out of the loss of Harvey, becomes the center of the movie.

Faces are the start of all human connection. When I suffered an accidental facial injury that involved black eyes, a broken nose, and almost 150 stitches in my mouth, it redefined my social interactions negatively for about six weeks. At another point in my life I gained a lot of weight. This also changed how other people responded to me. A year and a half later, when the weight came off, all of the tiny human interactions of my day improved as well.

Linguistically we also have loss of face : loss of our sense of status in the community. Our metaphorical language for social identity or persona starts with our faces. The sense of social role and facial appearance may be more deeply understood by actors and women, actors because persona is their bread and butter, women because the act of putting on makeup can reflect the act of composing onesself for the day. Of “making up the self”.

The Joker lives outside the human community, in almost total anomie. This permits his psychopathy. Harvey makes the traumatic journey from inside to outside through his trauma, losing his central human connection on his trip out. The Batman, of course, has to operate in both locations, shitty playboy Bruce to the neighbors, caped crusader at night.

Batman had a choice, our mutilated villains did not.

When a face is mutilated, it cannot be made up. Perhaps this is why Heath’s Joker skewers with his sloppy cheap stuff. Nothing can cover those scars.

When a face is mutilated, it cannot be made up. When a social identity has been shattered by trauma, it has to be made up, re-invented. If like Harvey Dent that reinvention is one woven with revenge and other reactions to loss, where is that person headed in life? The Joker ends up straightjacketed in Arkham Asylum. Even the Batman is stuck defined by how he chose to relate to his past, the adult reaction to childhood events.

When a face is mutilated, it is up to our neighbors not to wince. Our resilience as a culture is only as strong as our public ability to accept survivors as human beings who are not mutilated by the events they survived. Rape survivors may or may not have physical scars on their bodies. Our culture’s reinforcement of them as “raped”? As “forever raped” or “broken”? Not only is it a lie, these public attitudes can create scars where there would have been none before.

Somehow, the cycle of reacting in horror to accounts of events that were matter of fact to the people who actually lived through it has got to stop. Ordinary people are injured in horrifying ways; other ordinary people do horrifying things. We don’t usually have the spectacular make-up to tell us who the “bad guys” are. “Bad guys” may have ordinary or redeeming social features to them.

Oh, memory. People working in the PTSD field have described the process of the illness as time-looping through difficulty, having a repeating loop that can be triggered by things that, on the surface, sound similar (gunshots vs. car backfiring) The Joker loves to blow things up, set them on fire. One veteran of the Iraq war I spoke with about it described it as “having gasoline in his blood”, waiting for some ordinary event to spark his anger and “set him off”. The only regular thing about the Joker is his relentless push forward, creating chaos in an irregular yet continuing rhythm. This is what gets under my skin about that character, I think. For so many people that kind of fire is in their lives, waxing and waning, a response to a trigger somewhere in the body, a trigger disconnected from reality, relating to memory via a tricked out story …

… I wrote about Heath’s Joker as the Fool over here, in a post that’s in the blog I’m slowly migrating to this one. One other thread that I may discuss about this character in the future is his relationship to appetite. All good tricksters are deeply aware of the power of appetite. The Joker’s off-the-cuff statements about appetite, our animal nature, manipulation, and motivation fit the trickster’s archetype wonderfully.

the process of making : clint eastwood, 1988

Instead of running for cover in a sudden nasty rain a week earlier, he used the downpour to set a somber mood for a scene in Central Park in 1955, using Bird drenched to the skin as a metaphor. ”Ninety-nine percent of the directors I’ve worked with would have been screaming and shouting that they couldn’t work,” says Mr. Valdes.

”Things happen that you can’t control,” Mr. Eastwood says with a shrug. ”If someone throws a scene at me and says you must shoot this scene today because the set won’t be available tomorrow, I won’t say, ‘I haven’t thought about it, slept on it, meditated over it, so I can’t shoot it.’ ” Nothing that has gone wrong tonight will follow him home. He will, he says, ”jump into the shower, brush my chops real good, jump into bed” and be asleep in five minutes.

In Idaho, on ”Pale Rider,” Mr. Eastwood left 50 members of the crew and cast cooling their heels for several hours while he climbed up a mountain with his camera crew to get shots of trees with dying autumn leaves that he wanted for his title sequence. Something in the pit of his stomach warned him that the leaves would be gone by the next day, when he was scheduled to shoot them. ”The next morning, every leaf was off the trees,” says Mr. Valdes.


Local Film : Blanc De Blanc

Local director Lucas McNelly and his team took a two-week filmmaking challenge and created an intimate poem of a film. I’d love to tell you the story; this would, of course, ruin the viewing experience for you. An unlikely love story between Jude (Rachel Shaw), a young ER nurse working at UPMC Shadyside, and Dave (Jason Kirsch), a stranger without a past who synchronicity brings into her life.

Pittsburgh is the third party in the relationship. The informal visual intimacy we Pittsburghers experience day to day in our neighborhoods are echoed in shots of Shadyside, downtown, the Roberto Clemente Bridge. Cinematographer David Eger captures Pittsburgh’s neighborhoody depth of field in precisely-framed, close, yet relaxed shots.


blanc de blanc : still

Blanc de Blanc is a rare thing, a nesting-box film that succeeds. Its about love stories and process of relationship itself as much as it is the narrative that unfolds in Jude’s life. I’m glad I had the opportunity to watch it privately, to test it as hard as any one tests a suitor.

I found Jude’s lack of tests for Dave an exquisitely unbelievable aspect of the plot. My unbelief is, I think, precisely the point – exactly what I needed for the larger functions of the film to become clear. Within the narrative, the love story unfolds with very real moments of struggle and intimacy.

Jude argues with her belief in the possibility of the relationship in a way that is very real, I think, in our own couplings and uncouplings. It is our belief in the very possibility of it that gives any relationship its legs. Lose that belief, and lose the relationship.

Depth of field again … highly detailed moments contrast with the larger visual & poetic structure making an extraordinary piece of work, regardless of production time. McNelly establishes Dave’s character through a short series of images, a brief set of details that open the film. There is exactly enough there for us to struggle with the ambiguity of him – the ambiguity allows a lover’s projections of character; the ambiguity provides fuel for the audience to argue with Jude and Dave’s choices in the way we would argue with our partners; the ambiguity found in poetry.


blanc de blanc : still

Very well-acted – watching the actors dissolve into the story was a pleasure. Their work resonates with ordinary life in just the right way. My only quibble : sound design. I’d love it if the musical presence took a back seat. Perhaps the constant audio presence is meant to create the sense of closeness that the characters are enduring in their shared environment. Perhaps it points to the persistent unreality of their relationship. The music felt too close to the dialogue. I wanted a little more room, the music pushed a little farther back. Give the visuals a little space. But, that’s just my aesthetic talking.

McNelly’s been getting a fair amount of attention for the quality of the work here, particularly given the brief production time. I’ll forego the pile of links and instead send you to the horse’s mouth – http://www.blancdeblancfilm.com

I certainly hope he’s able to line up some of the non-traditional screenings in town to support the film. At an hour and seventeen minutes, its at tightly-edited piece worthy of a few opening short films and a lot of audience.

Keep an eye on where this one goes. Its a gem.