Journey to the Surface of Things – HD Video and art 2009
Wow. You stand in the video shop, pretending to compare prices, but really you’re looking at the HD screens, the big ones, the expensive ones, with direct digital feed from a Blu-Ray video disc. And although you don’t want to be impressed, you are. They told you it was like looking through a window onto a perfect world, and they were right; it is.
The video shop surroundings seem dull and unreal compared to what is happening on the screen. Or rather the depiction of what is happening. Reality is less real than this image, this experience, of fascination, of wonder, of awe. It reminds you of Anderson’s Little Match Girl, striking her match on the freezing, cold streets, so that ‘the glimmer turned the wall into a great sheet of crystal. Beyond that stood a fine table laden with food and lit by a candlestick’. [i] The match girl was hungry, and so are you; hungry with longing, but without being quite clear what you are longing for.
After watching for a while it becomes apparent what pictures the perfect High Definition trailer has to collect together. It starts with time lapse footage of a landscape (look at the clouds, those blades of grass), then goes on to wild animals (the fur!), birds, an aerial sequence of a vast waterfall, some icebergs, leaves with dew on them, and then finally goes underwater, which is really the killer sequence, the immersive sequence in more than one sense, which combines that window on another world with intense colour, texture, and lack of content. Pure spectacle in fact.
There has always been high definition imaging, at least in relation to what went before. Trompe L’Oeil painting was known in ancient Rome (Pompeii has examples), and was revived in the Baroque period, for example in Jacopo de’Barbari’s deceptively lifelike Still Life with Partridge and Glass of 1504. The painted panoramas of the late eighteenth century gave way to Louis Daguerre’s Diorama, an elaborately lit scene in a huge room, where skilful manipulation of backlight through enormous paintings would convince both critics and the public that they were looking at a natural scene.
But it was with the advent of cinema, even in black and white, that the full moving image “high definition” process came of age. It is widely believed that the first screening to a Parisian audience of Lumière’s L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de la Ciotat in 1895 caused terror and panic in the audience, who ran screaming to the back of the auditorium. In fact this has been shown to be an urban myth [ii]. Nonetheless, camera spectacle was being exploited very early on in the development of the medium; the largest screen image ever achieved by a single projector was in 1898 at the Paris Exposition, by the same Louis Lumière. It was 24 by 30 metres, the height of a six storey building.[iii] Thirty years later, John Logie Baird’s 30 line TV system was achieving a low resolution image of just one by two inches.
Throughout the twentieth century it was within cinema that immersive moving image technologies were developed, via Cinerama, 3D, and later IMAX, but only very recently that video/digital technologies have been able to approach that experience, through computer based virtual reality imaging and now High Definition TV, and more recently still that HD technologies have been available to artists.
HD changes the way we look at video images, but perhaps only for an historical moment. Awe and wonder are transient emotions; it is difficult, and possibly extremely uncomfortable, to spend ones life stuck in them. But for now the impact of the clarity and superreality of the image has to be absorbed. Some images exploit HD more than others, and that is why these have made it onto the showreel.
Detail is good. Texture is good. Grass, leaves, birds (all those feathers), some animals (that fur), and the underwater textures of algae on rocks, all these hold the eye. Landscapes are good, especially mountains with snow, in clear brightly sunlit days. Outdoors is good, indoors is bad. Sunlight is good, darkness and shadows mostly less so. Grain can lurk in those shadows, which destroys the illusion. Waterfalls have the benefit of both landscape and fine texture, and have a high wow factor. Humans, and faces in particular, are not so good. Make up artists have to work extra hard to eradicate imperfections in younger faces, giving on occasion a slightly embalmed look, in narrative fiction film. Older, more lined faces are OK, especially in documentary – W. H. Auden would have been the perfect HD interview subject.
Camera movements have to be much slower than in SD (standard definition) or strobing will occur. In fact, fixed camera positions allow the viewer time and space to really explore the hyperreal, rather as when those Magic Eye pictures click into three dimensions, and the eye is freed up to roam around the image, secure in its box of illusion. The overriding sensation is that you want the image to stop, to be still, to fully experience that ardent quality, that craving.
Bill Viola has exploited the tableau in HD in his series of videos, The Passions, created for the Getty Museum. He talks of the impact of plasma screens – “It’s not video any more – no scan lines…… I could make a life size image with a smooth creamy texture like oil paint”[iv]. And whilst the tableaux reference religious paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries, they also exploit the medium in a powerful way, “…pristine, hyperreal”[v] Viola calls it. In Emergence, a HD rear projection based on Masolino’s fresco of Christ in the tomb supported by Mary and John the Evangelist, the locked off camera, the shallowness of the depicted space, the richly patterned robes of the actress playing Mary, and the texture of the surge of water as the Christ actor is pulled from the well, all create a world of detail, of surfaces, especially for the medium.
Which leads to speculation. Would artists’ video (or film?) from the last 40 years have benefited from being produced in HD? Would Bruce Nauman’s Stomping in the Studio or Willie Wegman’s early video works with his dog Man Ray (answer, no). But perhaps Viola’s own I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like 1985, an epic tour of landscape, the animal kingdom, and spirituality, would have suited the medium. Artists who use film would be even more problematic. Peter Gidal in High Definition?
There is something about HD which promises immersion, which is one reason why underwater footage looks so alien and so convincing. The underwater image is soaked in texture, and colour, and strangeness. You long to be there, to dive in and swim with the fishes. It’s a world of appearances, of desire and longing, but without any recognisable content, unless you’re an oceanographer. Clarity is what we want; to see every hair on every sea urchin, every grain of sand, every colour on each exotic fish. The huge whale doesn’t look so exciting but the trail of bubbles from its mouth is amazing.
But then HD in its purest, wonder-full form, is not about film at all; it is a parade, a pageant. It is a North Korean gymnastics display. But as soon as you get absorbed in the content you forget it’s HD (forget it’s IMAX, or 3D). Willingly suspend your disbelief, as Coleridge said about the theatre, that it’s a film at all – it’s a story with a protagonist that you identify with, or it’s an idea embodied in images.
The makers of IMAX films knew this. The films are 40 minutes, they are mostly spectacular documentaries, hardly any narrative fiction, almost no experimental films have been made, a little bit of animation. Because if you start to engage with content and meaning you lose the IMAX experience and the whole point of paying to get in. The IMAX-ness has been lost. So these spectacular films are kept artificially in an arrested state of development, like an eternal adolescent, stopped only shortly after Lumiere’s train spectacularly entered the station at La Ciotat. And now that feature films are being printed onto and screened in the IMAX format, this is a kind of admission of defeat, that the process has had its day, that wonder can’t be preserved forever – unless you’re Peter Pan. Or perhaps the defeat is due to the elephant sized screen in the living room, the home HD cinema. Now that consumers can get a similar experience with Dolby 5.1 surround sound and 1080p pictures by their own fireside, there will be little impetus for them to queue up and pay extra for the experience.
HD promises immersion, but it is immersion in the surface of the image (those drops of water on the leaf). In HD you really, really can’t see the wood for the trees, but only for so long. As soon as you get interested in the character, or the implications of the image, its meaning, or an idea, the illusion disappears, and it’s not HD any more. As with Anderson’s match girl, “the little matchseller seemed to pass through the glass, but then the match went out and the magic faded”. But in any case with art, perhaps we don’t want immersion anyway, but distance, enough distance so as not to feel overwhelmed, enough to meet the object, or image halfway. HD images, when they work well, can be too literal.
Ironically in my own piece Barnum effect, I am trying to remind the audience of the sense of promise and longing that HD images seem to offer, whilst reminding them constantly of the absurdity of the promise. The effect was named after the showman P.T. Barnum, who believed that a good circus had “a little something for everybody”, and who made in his psychic act generalisations about members of his audience that they believed were surprisingly true (because they are true of all of us).
So HD has more than a little of the snake oil salesman about it; it promises more than it delivers. But in any case, we have a great ability to assimilate advances in reproductive AV technologies and get used to them, so that the new fidelity becomes a background hum. We have got used to FM after AM, colour TV after black and white, CDs after LPs. Only 3D film we never quite got used to; interestingly it has remained a sideshow, putting cinema back in the amusement arcade where it started. Too literal; too much information.
So we will get used to HD quite quickly. Artists and others will use it and some will find images and ideas that suit it more than SD. But then there is always something else round the corner. NHK engineers at the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation have developed Ultra high-definition TV, with a resolution that is 16 times that of HDTV, and has 24 channel sound[vi] . The results are said to be ultra immersive, rivalling IMAX, but it remains to be seen whether the emergent technologies promise greater fidelity- good faith, -or just a shinier surface.
Steve Hawley 2009
[i] Anderson, H.C. 1845 Den lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne (translator unknown)
[ii] Loiperdinger, M. 2004 "Lumiere's Arrival of the Train: Cinema's Founding Myth" (The Moving Image - Volume 4, Number 1, Spring 2004, pp. 89-118)
[iii] Guinness Book of Film facts and Feats 1984 p228
[iv] Walsh, J. (ed) 2003 Exhibition catalogue Bill Viola, The Passions, J. Paul Getty Museum
[vi] informitv.com Sep 2006 accessed at