After Cinema: Projection Mapping Digital Culture in the Video-Esséance
Craig J. Saper
Citation: Saper, Craig J. and Lynn Tomlinson. “After Cinema: Projection Mapping Digital Culture in the Video-Esséance.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 12, 2015. doi:10.20415/hyp/012.mm03
Abstract: This video-esséance began as a performance-video at the "Mapping Culture" conference in Coimbra, Portugal in the spring of 2014. There are neither spoilers, nor anchoring explanations for our video-essay, or what we are calling our video-esséance (essay-meets-séance). Our work is informed by a tradition of scholarship in which the inextricably linked design-and-argument produces media-as-essay.
Although in this article on "After Cinema," there are neither spoilers, nor anchoring explanations for our video-essay, or what we are calling our video-esséance (essay-meets-séance), one might read this more traditional-looking essay afterword. Since this essay might also serve, for some, as an Afterword for the entire special issue on Mapping Culture, we thought it best to let it appear as a framing device not as a footnote to only our video.
Unintentionally reminiscent of video art projections, like Tony Ousler's MMPI (Self-Portrait in Yellow) in which a video image of a narrating head is projected onto a puppet, and explicitly alluding to the mining of proto-cinematic projections in performance mapping video art projects, animator-artist-scholar Lynn Tomlinson collaborated with me on this project(ion). Tomlinson (2013) describes examples of this historical dimension of live performance mixed with animation, visual effects, and projections in her article, "The dance of the live and the animated":
Since the dawn of cinema, animation and performance have been intertwined. Some of the first films ever made captured a whirling, color-filled, metamorphosing shape; part butterfly, part sea creature; more abstraction than human form . . . Before animation was called animation, before it became an industrialized process, entertainers and artists played with media and technology to create an illusion of life and movement. In the early decades of this new century, artists are again using light, color, costume and movement to create work that blurs boundaries between the animated and the live, through a combination of accessible new digital technologies and projection, mixed with low-tech hand-made elements.
Our work is informed by a tradition of scholarship in which the inextricably linked design-and-argument produces media-as-essay. While creating the material for our initial performance, on which this work is based, I was co-editing and writing the introduction for Electracy: Gregory L. Ulmer's Textshop Experiments (2015). So I was thinking about avant-garde art approaches to scholarly issues in the electronic milieu. As a result, this video-essay more closely resembles proto-cinematic performances, and the video art that mined those performances, rather than the standardized essays common in academic scholarship.
With this initial context and motivation, this video-esséance began as a performance-video at the "Mapping Culture" conference in Coimbra, Portugal in the spring of 2014. We wanted the video-performance to embody, not merely ornament, our argument and meanings; while referencing and alluding to proto-cinematic performances. Projections in séance-performances particularly intrigued us because of the "magical" and post-human discourses surrounding "new" media. In those early séance-performances, smoke would fill a theater and a magic lantern would project a human image or floating head. The image wavered and moved with the heavy smoky clouds, and men were known to have drawn their swords to defeat the ghosts.
In Coimbra, we had the conference organizers hold any late arrivers outside the door after we began our performance to keep the room as dark as possible. Lynn Tomlinson acted as the medium – conjuring me (who was apparently missing) – and waving her hands in the air as she recited an incantation that mixed puncepts on medium, ghosting interruptions to the image, and projection (in all of its meanings) with nonsense rhymes; she did this with a faux-spooky séance voice, dressed like a fortune-teller as she performed her conjuring act. We then projected my talking head on a large balloon as if I was a spirit in a crystal ball. I also spoke on the video projection with a haunted ghost-like voice. On a screen behind the floating talking head, we projected a set of images of vertical videos of our feet as we walked as tourists down the cobblestone alleys of Coimbra. Lynn continued to wave her hands as if to keep the transmission alive.
Technically, everything went well. We also premiered Lynn Tomlinson's now prize-winning and internationally-acclaimed film The Ballad of Holland Island House, in part because we wanted to create a Vaudeville Nickelodeon feeling ... with projections, performances, and short animated films; and in part because we did not know if anything would work at all – and we were flying by the seat of our pants (e.g., we had to find a helium-filled balloon, electricity to run all of our projectors, and we had to make sure our remote Bluetooth speaker that we brought from the States would work wirelessly, we had to run down the hill in town to get a cord or a drive or something not long before we started, and much more). This is common with technologically complex performances, and our video was in part about the primitive media we still have in our digital age. Other systems during our plenary session did fail: the keynote speaker before our plenary session, who was trying to Skype-in her talk from Germany, ended with the organizers simply ending the call in frustration after fifteen minutes of a call "breaking-up."
The crowd greeted this mystifying "esséance" with joy, excitement, bemusement, and questioned it all – not just our piece, but also the entire plenary (some of which are included in this special issue of Hyperrhiz). We had not documented anything – not the performance-projection; not the talk-back afterward; and the pieces of the performance would be extremely difficult to reproduce. We also recognized that a published version would have different demands, different performance criteria, and not make sense in the same way as the performance in Coimbra.
We started from scratch. We wrote a new script based on the old script. Lynn worked with two of her former animation students, Rodrigo Alonzo and Allison Zimmitti, to create the otherworldly graphics. We recorded my talking head once, but scrapped that version, judging the performance as not over-the-top enough. We then we re-recorded it with some more of Lynn's direction and encouragement stressing the uncanny aspects of my acting style, looking at clips from early cinema and from films like Frankenstein. We recorded Lynn's hand gestures, so she, too would be embodied in the video-esséance. We talked about the post-Anthropocene and I read articles by various theorists about communicating with computers as if they were ghost-like apparitions. While I was writing the script, I was thinking about the tone of mourning and séances, in terms of the media technologies looking backward into the past, conjuring or remediating (in a much more perverse way) the old departed media forms into the new forms. And, finally, Lynn Tomlinson was simultaneously delivering presentations and screening her film for scholars studying object-oriented ontology, and organizing panels and publications around the idea of "animate art" – the inanimate brought to life. By approaching animation with a broad definition, the breath of life, we can rethink what it means to be alive in terms of animacy rather than agency. As performance art functioned to resituate art in earlier decades, now, the animator was coming into her own – séance like – as a conjuror of the inanimate, the machine, and the inanimate: It's Alive!
What follows – or what you've already watched – is a video about a mapping of all of these intertwined themes, motifs, puncepts, and ideas.
Saper, Craig J. and Victor J. Vitanza. (2015). "Singing The Rhetoric Electracy: An Introductory Dialogue." Introduction. Electracy: Gregory L. Ulmer's Textshop Experiments, edited by Gregory L. Ulmer, Craig J. Saper, and Victor J. Vitanza. Emergence Series. Aurora, CO: Noesis Press-Davies Group, Publishers.
Tomlinson, Lynn. (2013, December). "The Dance of the Live and the Animated: Performance Animation by Kathy Rose, Miwa Matreyek and Eva Hall," Animation Practice, Process, and Production, 3(1-2), 18-56. http://dx.doi.org/10.1386/ap3.3.1-2.17_1