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Digital Cinema and Experimental Film - Continuities and Discontinuities
Malcolm Le Grice on the importance of experimental film history to digital media. First published in Bild-Medium-Kunst, 1999

The arts using computers are too recent to have established any orthodox history or theory of their own. The technology itself is in rapid development and digital and electronic systems allow hybrid links between various technologies which has not reached, and may never reach, any stability. It is tempting to see this as supporting a theoretical approach where digital art is outside historical constraint and interpretation.

Digital media link together computers, various audiovisual display and recording systems and remote multi-user networks, like the internet, all with the capacity for interactivity which is built into the computer interface. Almost by definition the computer is an eclectic medium. It seems able to incorporate or interface with almost all previous media -the written word, pictures, music and even the time flow of images and sound which makes up cinema and video and communication forms like the telephone, or TV. Though it does not as readily incorporate the physical, spatial forms of sculpture, performance or drama, it has a growing presence in these art forms through interactive systems applied in three-dimensional construction and the arena of performance.

In other words, it is difficult to define digital media as a single form -a medium -with its own distinct characteristics. Definition of the intrinsic characteristics of a medium has been a major component of the modernist enterprise. As long as a medium had a relatively limited set of physical characteristics which could be seen as having a direct link with those features at the base of its aesthetic form -the flatness of the canvas or colour in painting -the physical basis of harmonics in music -the modernist argument could demonstrate a continuity between the special characteristics of a medium, its aesthetic components and its 'language'. Modernist art, with its aesthetic language rooted in the physical properties of the medium, simultaneously allowed a phenomenological relationship between the work and the spectator. This put at the core of modern art a condition of 'presence' -an encounter with the physical, specific to the art object, its medium, its location in space and historical time. It was an experience constructed between the spectator and the art work as a component of the physical world. The perception of the phenomenological world in the art work might be transformed through the aesthetic experience -the interplay of colour, or sound for example -into a symbolic or semiotic experience, but it remained, and in the modernist work, stressed, the physical continuity between medium and meaning.

While the information technology arts remained fundamentally mechanical, as in photography, film and phonography, these mechanics also permitted a modernist approach to those media -they allowed a parallel concept of continuity between the physical encounter with the medium, its characteristic aesthetics and its symbolic language. Thus experimental film could develop as an extension from modernism.

The modernist approach lost theoretical credibility to the concepts of post-modernism for a number of reasons. One was a confusion by both artists and critics of the phenomenological concepts of art with notions of a pure essence of medium. Here the material constraints and possibilities of a medium which were in fact being constantly modulated within a historical context became interpreted instead as an idealist and immutable condition residing in the medium. At the same time, the 'avant-garde', which did understand the materialist approach to the medium as being within a developing historical discourse, fell foul of post-modernist argument for its progressive view of history. This progressiveness, being broadly attached to Marxism, became increasingly difficult to sustain as the communist world failed to establish either viable political or economic systems.

However, perhaps the greatest difficulties facing a modernist view have come from mixed-media art, recent use of electronic or digital technologies by artists and the more general cultural effect of telecommunications, and the mass media.

Mixed-media arts combine not only the physical characteristics of different media but also their historical discourses as language. Digital arts extend this process through increasing the range of potential media but add the discourses which relate to the computer itself both inside and outside art. The combination of different media makes it increasingly difficult to distinguish the limiting boundaries of the medium from which to draw its 'intrinsic' characteristics. Digital systems, by incorporating other media, extend this difficulty but add to it the fundamental non-tactility or non-visibility of its electronic data and processes. Digital and electronic media seem to defy finding a physical basis for the aesthetic unless this is added through the output technology. Mass media, particularly television, have progressively created a cultural schism between the representation and the physical object. Instantaneous transmission of images and sounds across space have created a cultural habit reading the electronic representation as if it were present. Our discourse with the real has become a discourse with the represented image, a presence of the image not in conflict with its lack of physical proximity. In addition, the recorded documentation, photo, audio and cinematic, has begun to bring the historically remote into the same condition of presence as the physically remote. In other words, telecommunications and mass media have produced a near simultaneity of representation across space and time which we may treat as the real world. This is maintained provided we do not create a conflict between image and physical presence. The image represents presence and mass culture has become wholly semiotic linking equally space, historical time, fiction and fact.

Post-modernism, by embracing cultural simultaneity in an ultimate eclecticism of image across time and space, has responded to a major social and cultural change brought about by technology. It has rightly recognised the difficulty of sustaining the concept of the specificity of the medium in the electronic multimedia or mixed-media context. However, by abandoning the attempt to maintain a continuity between physicality, the medium of representation and the condition of the represented, it has left the spectator with no resistance to the image, no measuring conflict between the reality of the image, the illusion of the image or the distinction between different forms of presence. For the artist, abandoning awareness of the continuity between medium and meaning only makes it more difficult to recognise the constraints on the creation of meaning which exist in the digital domain just as they do in any other area of art practice.

These constraints derive from at least three areas:

  • the media or technology itself;
  • the artistic languages or discourses which are available to it;
  • the prevailing social or cultural context.

In approaching an understanding of digital media, their potentialities, constraints and artistic languages, some aspects of the modernist approach can be usefully revised.

It is clear that the physical aspects of the computer would not provide a sensible basis from which to seek intrinsic characteristics of the medium. These are either insignificant, like the boxes in which the components are contained, or electronically of such small scale that they are outside our perception. There will be physical aspects as the digital becomes structured into art works, but the form of these will depend on the chosen output medium for any particular work. Instead, with any technological art, it is the processes rather than the material which provide the most fruitful source for consistent or intrinsic properties. This is particularly true with digital media where both input and output forms are flexible and varied.

Fundamental Characteristics of Digital Systems

This is an attempt to define the main intrinsic characteristics or basic concepts of digital media. They reside in the systems and are fundamental to equipment using digital electronics.


The most fundamental characteristic of the form of data used in the computer is its ultimate abstraction as discrete electrical pulses. These have only two possible states which can be described as -'on' or 'off', 'yes' or 'no', 'one' or 'zero'. Any element of information which resides in a computer as data or as instruction for processing data takes this form. Thus the data in a computer does not resemble its source in any sense, it is sheer codification. Without an agreed system for interpreting the coded data, the data for one type of information looks exactly like the data for any other type of information. It is difficult to imagine a greater degree of abstraction than digital information and it is from this form of the data that many of the other characteristics derive. Though the pixels, the component 'dots' from which computer images are constructed, are not strictly synonymous with the digital data, they may be considered as a symbol for the process of digitisation in the visual arena.


It is impossible for data to have a coherent form or relationship to the information it represents without analysis. The analytical processes employed must be built into the software or the hardware system before even the simplest operation can be performed. Again taking the pixel as an example, the analytic process for this must contain a number of elements, each given a value in a coding system which is consistent. First it must define its co-ordinate position in the whole picture, next it must define its luminous intensity, then its colour values normally within a range of intensities of three basic colours usually defined as red, green and blue. This principle of analysis of the components of information and how they are to be codified applies at every level of computer operation including those complex programs capable of ordering higher levels of distinguishing text, sound and image.


In the same way in which the storage and handling of data must be related to an analysis of what is to constitute the various aspects of the data, its output must undergo a reverse process of synthesis. The data must be retrieved, recombined and in some way output so that the information which became data as it was stored is returned to our visual or other domain of the senses in a form retaining its intended coherence. However, the concept of synthesis is more complex than that of the mirror to analysis. While the synthesis may be put to the service of the reproduction of information brought to and stored in the computer, this is not the only possible application of the synthetic process. It is possible for the synthetic process to generate both the data and its form of presentation. This synthesis without stored data may be aimed at a recognisable representation derived from a fundamental analysis of the component features of the world being modelled, or it might be more limited and based on the generation of an imaginary or aesthetic environment with no intended resemblance to the 'real' world, or more accurately, with no resemblance to the predominant systems of representing the real world.

When a computer is used, the various levels of analytical or synthetic process must take place even if the artist does not take responsibility for defining or implementing them. It is a serious question for digital art where fundamental authorship resides when the artist does not take responsibility for the form of analysis underlying the aesthetic processes within the output work.

Translation or Transformation

As any data stored in a computer is in digital form and bears no intrinsic resemblance to its initial source, the way in which it may be recombined for output is subject to transformation as well as synthesis. This transformation may take any level of linked coherence from minor transformation of the colour bias in a photographic image, to major revision of colour and positional structures. It may be taken to greater extremes of translation, using data stored for one representational purpose to be output in a completely different form. For example, the data stored as a picture may be output as sound. The computer has no opinion on the way in which data is used -it is as happy for the ones and zeros of a photograph to be sent to the loudspeaker as to the screen. Of course, a greater discrimination in which components of the data would be suitable for which translation can result in a greater or lesser coherence in the translated output. For example, the probable smooth transitions light and dark in an image translated into volume or pitch differences at output might retain a coherence which approaches aspects of musical form. This concept of transformation or translation is not simply an available option. In some respects it is one of the components of any synthetic relationship to data if the computer is to be used to process rather than simply reproduce data.

Program or Programmability

Beyond the basic concept of digitisation and its consequent features of analysis, synthesis and transformation the next crucial feature of the computer is its programmability. It is a third stage technology following the simple tool then the machine. Its main distinction from the first two stages of technology is that it is an information machine without a single purpose. It is an intelligent system needing instruction on what work it is to perform and how it is to interface with other machines. The instructions are its programs. For art also it represents a kind of third stage following the direct media of the hand and body -painting -music -sculpture -dance, then the media of mechanical reproduction -the printing press -photography -film -the phonograph. A major characteristic of the program is that its outputs change depending on the data or procedures selected. The program is a set of instructions to manipulate data in a particular way which can include responding to new input of data or new input of the way in which it may be manipulated. As a consequence, the resulting works will follow a consistent pattern formed by the program but each particular version of the work may have differences. These differences are a component of the work and may be based on a range of factors or strategies within the program. Though the range of possible strategies are developing with the development of computer art, some of these may be defined. The first retain a single program combining data but permutate combinations in some way, or respond to new data being input as the work progresses. Another explores input to make modifications to aspects of the program itself through looping, partial looping or branching structures. Within each of these there may be varying algorithms or mathematical formulae which produce different results depending on the data used and various uses of randomisation of values producing unpredictable variety within certain defined limits. In all these cases, the resulting work goes beyond the singularity of the hand-made object or the multiple but identical copy of the mechanical reproduction.

Arbitrary Access (Random Access)

A major characteristic of digital systems is the fundamentally non-linear way in which information (data) is stored and retrieved. Codified data or information in the form of blocks of consistent code, when it is put into the computer is assigned a location, a position in memory -an address. This address, which may be expressed as a number, defines the starting-point for the block of data to be store or retrieved. However, as the time taken to relocate from one address to another is electronically equal, whatever address number is chosen, all address locations are conceptually equidistant. The computer does not walk past house numbers 2, 3, 4, and 5 to get from 1 to 6 -number 1 is as close to number 1000 as it is to 2. Thus the storage and retrieval of information is not confined to simple arithmetic sequence and proximity. Though large storage systems retain aspects of linearity through rotating disks, the memory chips of a computer are conceptually best understood as a three- or even multidimensional matrix. Combining this multidimensional storage structure with speeds of access which are so fast as to be almost negligible creates a condition for information storage and retrieval quite unlike those which have existed with the physical structures of books or pictures or the linear mechanical systems of film, video or audiotape. This form of storage is known as Random Access Memory. The use of the term 'random' here is confusing as it has little to do with randomisation or chance. The term 'arbitrary' in its classical sense of 'chosen' expresses this concept better. Whatever terms are used to describe this, if seen as an intrinsic property of digital media it has radical implications for art, structures of aesthetic expression and representation. The principles on which data, information or fragments of the represented world may be combined are only limited by the systems which can be defined for creating links, and these systems are clearly not confined to simple linearity.


Though the computer need not always involve interactivity in the execution of a program, it is fundamentally structured to respond to input as well as output. As with arbitrary (or random) access structures in memory, the implications for artistic practice of incorporating performance feedback by the artist or, more radically, the action of the spectator in the sequential development of a work creates significant new possibilities for art practice. It also creates significant new issues for the understanding of the relationship between the work and the spectator and for the concept of authorship which may also be seen as intrinsic to digital media.

Digital Media -Artistic Language and Discourse

In general, this outline of digital media using a modernist approach demonstrates that it is possible to define characteristics which stem from or belong to the medium. However, it also demonstrates the way in which computers represent some significant discontinuities with many of the assumptions which have led art practice in both the 'hand-made' and mechanical periods. But, it is not only the medium, mechanics or technology which produce the determinants of the art work. The major historical continuity for art is best understood through its 'languages' or discourses. The concept of discourse is probably more appropriate, as the evolving relationship between symbolic and formal systems in art of the twentieth century have reduced the stability normally associated with the concept of language. Art discourses establish meaning within particular works through the development of symbolic and formal relationships by reference to previous work within a medium and its cultural institutions.

Artistic work which has taken up the possibilities offered by the computer have their continuity both of meaning and form with a variety of established art practices or discourses. We can see at least two aspects to this continuity. One is the incorporation into computer art of forms drawn from existing practice, the other, more radically, sees a development of formal ideas in previous work which prefigures some of the concepts intrinsic to digital art. Though both aspects of this continuity could be demonstrated in a range of art practices, this essay briefly maps some of the points of reference in experimental film which have begun to prepare us for aesthetic notions related to the capacities of digital art.

Experimental Cinema -Proto-Digital

There are four areas or directions of experimental film which develop concepts now seen as integral to digital media -Abstract Film, Transformed Image Film, Non-Narrative Film (structuralist and surrealist cinema) and Expanded Cinema.

Abstract Film

In the field of experimental cinema, abstract film was historically first with its origins in the Futurist experiments of Bruno Corra and Arnaldo Ginna around 1914. Like abstract art in general, abstract film involved the 'analytic' abstraction of visual qualities from their representational function and their 'synthesis' in a new language often described as visual or chromatic music. This direction of cinema not only provided the basis of cinematic ideas -it discourse -from which the computer film itself emerged through the pioneers John and James Whitney in the 1950's and 1960's, but it prefigured the possibility of programmability through the key work Diagonal Symphony (completed between 1921 and 1925) by Viking Eggeling. Viking Eggeling's work is crucial in this history. Diagonal Symphony is an animated abstract film based closely on Eggeling's theoretical attempt to describe a new logical basis for abstract form and its development either in time, or laterally in horizontal 'scroll' shaped drawings. Though he based his concepts on seeking a parallel between abstract art and music with particular reference to Johann Sebastian Bach, both the drawings and the film correspond most closely to the mathematics of topology. Eggeling explores the development of simple shapes, first stated as themes, then taken through addition, subtraction and combination of component features. The work is not mechanistic -it follows no single logic and the changes are the result of subjective artistic decision but it would be easily programmable. Its position as a key work prefiguring the digital is not based on its surface similarity to programmable abstract film but is held in the similarity of its concept and aesthetic philosophy with the process of analysis, synthesis and the attempt to make formal principles explicit.

Transformed Image Film

There are many examples from the history of experimental film of the attempt to transform the photographic image through technical devices. The photographic experiments of Man Ray, using solarisation and negative devices, are among the earliest attempts to use defined technical procedures to transform the photographic image. This approach reached its most coherent point in work by film-makers who had direct access to film printing equipment and could selectively matte and recolour sections of the film image. Examples can be found in many works by Pat O'Neill beginning with By the Sea (1963) or my own Berlin Horse (1970). The key film exploring the transformation of image qualities in a representational context is Len Lye's Trade Tattoo (1937). This film, which pioneered the use of the three colour separation Gaspar Colour system, immediately exploited the opportunities inherent in a technical process based on the abstraction of image components for a resynthesis which manipulated the components. This dissociation of the recorded information from its original representational identity and its recombination according to other principles -a form of transformation or translation -creates in Trade Tatoo an original aesthetic experience. But it also embodies in the meaning of the work a philosophical concept that information subject to abstraction as component 'data' becomes a new form of 'raw material' available for 'retrieval' in ways which construct a new experiential model of the world.

Non-Narrative Film

Perhaps the most significant principle of experimental cinema which unifies both abstract and representational work is the search for structures which do not conform to linear narrative constraints. In this respect, non-linear concepts which relate to the intrinsic feature of Random Access Memory in computers can be seen to have had their origins in many works. In particular, Germain Dulac's La Coquille et le Clergyman (1927) or the surrealist cinema of Buñuel and Dali -Un Chien andalou (1928) or L'Age d'or (1930), by attempting to embody a concept of psychological association or dream in the structure of cinema, used montage to establish links which did not describe causal action or a narrative line. Also from the early history of experimental film, but developing from a very different trajectory, is the thematic associative montage of Dziga Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera (1928). However, what serves best as a key work here is Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), not only because of the film but also because Deren herself established a significant theoretical idea in a symposium in 1953 which reinforces the non-linear interpretation of the work. The film explores a complex form of a repeated, dreamlike, symbolic event. At each repetition, small changes expand the spectator's imaginary construction of the symbolic space rather like a spiral through a matrix of action images. The spectator's passage through the film requires each previous 'version' of the action to be reviewed by the next -not replacing it by a more definitive version but deepening the experiential references in a cumulative transformation. The inevitable linearity of the film is used to explore a symbolic space which is not resolved as a causal narrative. In the 1953 symposium, 'Poetry and the Film' (Maya Deren, Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas, Parker Tyler and chair Willard Mass from Film Culture no. 29, Summer 1963). Deren, in developing an equivalence between poetry and the poetic film, introduces a concept of 'verticality', an exploration at right angles to the 'horizontal' development of the narrative. She says, referring to Shakespeare,

you have the drama moving forward on a 'horizontal' plane of development, of one circumstance -one action -leading to another, and this delineates the character. Every once in a while, however, he arrives at a point of action where he wants to illuminate the meaning of this moment of drama, and, at that moment, he builds a pyramid or investigates it 'vertically' ...

Then applied to film she says:

the short films, to my mind (and they are short because it is difficult to maintain such intensity for a long period of time), are comparable to lyric poems, and they are completely a 'vertical', or what I would call a poetic construct, and they are complete as such.

This search by Maya Deren for both a cinematic form and a theoretical framework for an alternative to the narrative trajectory -a non-linearity -represents a guide to the development of cinematic models which relate directly to the intrinsic non-linearity of the computer.

Expanded Cinema

There are two conflicting definitions of Expanded Cinema, one which derives from Gene Youngblood (Expanded Cinema) and one which had currency in Europe from 1967 through to 1980 (see Le Grice, 'Mapping in Multi-Space -From Expanded Cinema to Virtuality' in White Cube Black Box, EA Generali publication, 1996). The European interpretation (which is being used here) was largely characterised by a concern to bring the cinematic experience consciously into the space of the spectator through performed action and installation. Film structures were developed to initiate a positive reflexive role for the spectator, a concern also debated in theory by film-makers at the time. There are few works, if any, where the spectator could be said to interact directly with the development of a film and there is no single key work prefiguring interactivity. However, there are a number of cases where aspects of the work change through the visible action of the artist, the specific location or some form of involvement of the audience during the presentation which point a direction seeking to change the relationship between the artist and the audience towards an interactive concept. In Auf+Ab+An+Zu by Valie Export (1968) a member of the audience is invited to draw the outline of a moving film image onto the screen. In my own Horror Film (1971), the shadow cast by the performer onto an overlapping colour field screen delineates the screen size and shape at various points in the space between the screen and three projectors. In 1972, two works explored the space and time of projection and audience interaction with it in different ways. Anthony McCall's Line Describing a Cone invited the audience to move physically into the projection space as a line of light from a filmed dot expanded to become a cone of light of a filmed circle. In 2 Minutes 45 Seconds, by William Raban, a blank screen is filmed and the film projected and refilmed over successive performances, progressively recording as receding layers the sound and image of artist or audience intervention at each presentation.

Digital Media - Continuous and Discontinuous

Many of the possibilities offered by computers and their links with other digital or analogue systems represent new directions not envisaged in previous art. However, the concepts embodied in the computer as a technology have emerged together in parallel with other contemporary philosophical, conceptual or aesthetic developments. Various forms of continuity can be demonstrated as stemming from the technology itself or the discourses belonging to the art forms which have become incorporated into the digital arts. In addition, the general development of philosophical or cultural ideas provides a context where the underlying forms or meanings produced in art have a conceptual continuity in the broader field of knowledge and social interaction. It is only through understanding the determinants of art practice and the historical continuities that the genuinely new and particular can emerge.

Malcolm Le Grice
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