My masters project for Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London. My research paper entitled: “Transitional Digital Objects: A fluidity in compositing an autobiography or a failure to create the portrait of the whole?” could downloaded on the following link: https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=explorer&chrome=true&srcid=0Bz-6Qx7Ge00zYzY4NGYxOGYtNDllNC00M2ZmLTkzMTYtNWE4OGY0YjE0MWEz&hl=en

Transitional digital objects:

Fluidity in compositing an autobiography

or a failure to create a portrait of the whole?

Manovich, L. & Kratky, A. (2005) Soft cinema: navigating the database. [Snapshot from the DVD]. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Name: Maya Chami Supervisor:Andrew Stiff Course Leader:Jonathan Kearney
Mode:MA Visual Arts –Digital Arts Online

University:Camberwell College of Arts – University of the Arts London Year:2009 – 2011 Submitted:December 1, 2010


Research Question:

Transitional digital objects: Fluidity in compositing an autobiography or a failure to create a portrait of the whole?

Abstract:

The paper explores the transitional aspect of digital objects in relation to autobiography. D.W. Winnicott (1971) coined the term ‘transitional objects’; it travels around the theme of object and fantasy. The paper assumes the fluid nature of digital objects, ‘a new media object’ could be ‘variable, mutable, liquid’ as per Manovich’s (2001) definition. Placing autobiography as the aim from transitional digital objects manipulation, the paper questions whether the fluidity will act as a facilitator to autobiographical visual compositing or will it fail to create a portrait of the whole?

The first part is dedicated to looking at the fluidity of digital objects through observing and relating theories and artworks of practitioners who have investigated the theme object. Mark Leckey (2008) exemplifies the dissolved physical into a digital object at the beginning of the century and by its end; Hollis Frampton (1969) doubts the object’s third dimensionality on the screen; Sherry Turkle (2007) emphasizes the emotional in objects; whereas Donna Haraway (1991) rejects the concept of objects being sacred in themselves; the Cult of Less (2009) upload their material lives on external hard drives and online services platforms; and Michael Craig-Martin (1973) challenges belief through a glass of water, a shelf and a printed text in his sculpture An Oak Tree.

The second part is focused on autobiography compositing. Different autobiographical manifestations come together to reach the final conclusion later. Christiane Paul (2008) defines the new nomadic nature; Mark Amerika (2007) speaks of the ‘hyperimprovisational narrative artist’ in Meta/Data; William Burroughs (1970) discusses the viral in the language; and Marcel Proust (1913) gives a lesson in generative autobiographical storytelling and involuntary memory in his book Remembrance of Things Past, specifically the episode of the Madeleine; Lev Manovich (2005) concludes this section with his compositing in the digital realm theory that leads to ‘deep remixability’.

The conclusion is preceded by notes on ‘recollection’ according to Mark Freeman (1995) and the ‘wholistic fictionalization of the past’ by Michel Foucault (1973) as well as Nietzsche’s (1889) statement of ‘the whole’ that ‘no longer lives at all: it is composed, reckoned up, artificial, a fictitious thing’.

The findings of the paper affirm the fluidity of autobiographical compositing through transitional digital objects as well as the failure of creating the portrait of the whole but do not judge the latter conclusion as necessarily inconvenient.

Keywords:

New Media Object – Autobiographical Compositing – Transitional – Fluidity – Wholeness


Introduction:

One aspect of the objects’ world is considered in this paper: the transitional and to be specific, as viewed in the digital context of an autobiographical compositing.

Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena is analyzed in Donald Wood Winnicott’s essay discussing the development of babies’ growing ability to distinguish inner self from the outer world in relation to a material or an immaterial transitional object, for instance a part of blanket. (Candlin & Guins, 2009)

Accepting reality is a never completed task that requires an intermediate area of experience, that of ‘play’, Winnicott states:

The transitional phenomena are allowable to the infant because of the parents’ intuitive recognition of the strain inherent in objective perception, and we do not challenge the infant in regard to subjectivity and objectivity just here where there is the transitional object. (Winnicott, 1971: p. 9)

In applying this ‘intermediate area of play’, the use of transitional objects or transitional phenomena to adulthood, Winnicott (1971) clarifies that if the adult can handle to enjoy his/her own state of personal intermediate area without making claims, then we can accept our own corresponding intermediate area; and we can find a middle ground or a common experience between different groups belonging to the field of art or religion or philosophy.

Since the transitional object in this paper is located in new media, what follows should define the object within this context.

‘Object’ is a standard term in the computer science and industry, used to emphasize the modular nature of object-oriented programming languages such as C++ and Java, object-oriented databases and the OLE [Object Linking and Embedding] technology used in Microsoft Office products. (Manovich, 2001: p. 39)

Lev Manovich defines then describes the nature of new media object as ‘not something fixed once and for all but can exist in different, potentially infinite, versions’. (Manovich, 2001: p. 56) Placing this exponentiality and variability at the core of autobiographical visual compositing, this paper seeks to explore what would be the consequences of this digital object’s fluidity on the task of ‘rewriting the self’ (Freeman, 1995: p. 8).

It is in digital compositing that the development of the new hybrid visual language of the moving image has taken place; liberating media from the ‘flow’ and transforming the basic unit from frame to visual elements and from time-based to composition-based and object-oriented.

Rather than ‘time-based’, it [moving image] becomes ‘composition-based’, or ‘object oriented’. That is, instead of being treated as a sequence of frames arranged in time, a ‘moving image’ is now thought of as a two-dimensional composition that consists of a number of objects that can be manipulated independently. (Manovich, 2005)

Manovich’s (2005) essay Deep Remixability refines the consequences of compositing in an object-oriented platform, which makes the manipulation of dematerialized objects happen in so many ways; parameters are independently treated since numbers control algorithms. In this context, the simulated new media object maintains the memory of the particular physical media which it came from, so this technique becomes a character in its own right, it has fluidity and versatility that did not exist previously, making its relation to the physical world ambiguous.

Part One: Transitional Objects from Physical to Digital

Object is a recurrent theme in theoretical essays and artworks of many practitioners. The upcoming section will be observing and relating some of these theories and works, drawing attention to specific perspectives of the object.

The shift from the physical to the digital object is spotted in Mark Leckey’s essay where he borrows the image of the sinking ship Titanic in James Cameron’s movie to describe that the actual theme of the film is based on Marx’s phrase: ‘All that is solid melts into air’ and that the director used this idea to show how ‘the manifest of materiality of heavy industry at the beginning of the century dissolved into the impalpable, intangibility of software production by its end. Where everything has become an image.’ (Sperlinger & White, 2008: p. 64)

The physical object in the creative industry was criticized in the museum environment. Museum and objects is a vast topic, the paper’s restriction will not allow giving it justice. However, within the context approached here and to back up Mark Leckey’s vision of the physicality dissolving, Theodore W. Adorno in his essay Valéry Proust Museum declares the death of the object in the museum context when he brings in the German word ‘museal’ and connects it to the word ‘museum’.

The German word, ‘museal’ [‘museumlike’], has unpleasant overtones. It describes objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying. They owe their preservation more to historical respect than to the needs of the present. Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association. Museums are like the family sepulchers of works of art. They testify to the neutralisation of culture. Art treasures are hoarded in them, and their market value leaves no room for the pleasure of looking at them. Nevertheless, that pleasure is dependent on the existence of museums. (Adorno, 1967: p. 173)

Object in the museum conflict, which mainly revolves around the uniqueness of the object and the impossibility of reproducibility and availability (an object is presented whenever the owner decides to show it) is a resolved matter in the new media era. (Sperlinger & White, 2008) However this point will be exemplified in different instances at a later stage of the paper. First, a look at Hollis Frampton’s Lemon, a seven-minute video that questions the three dimensionality of the object on the flatness of the screen, helps describe the role of the object on the screen and how it was never a ‘goes without saying’ subject. Frampton uses a light moving slowly around the fruit while describing the actual fruit as being boldly three dimensional, tangible, until the light – or rather the shadow – is entirely covering the screen, and the fruit becomes a flawless silhouette, a flat two dimensional shape, a shadow of the actual lemon, a pure dark screen. (Frampton 1969, accessed 2010) In Frampton’s words, it is the passage of the object’s image from ‘the spatial rhetoric of illusion into the spatial grammar of the graphic arts.’

Frampton, H. (1969) Lemon. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 29 November 2010].

Away from the museum, Sherry Turkle traces the power of everyday things. She stresses in Evocative Objects on the emotional; ‘ballet slippers, a yellow raincoat, a stuffed bunny’ all are shown to ‘bring philosophy down to earth’ and go on to generate ideas and carry passions. (Turkle, 2007) Turkle’s perspective is questioned in Donna Haraway’s Cyborgs who believes that

No objects, spaces, or bodies are sacred in themselves; any component can be interfaced with any other if the proper standard, the proper code, can be constructed for processing signals in a common language. Exchange in this world transcends the universal translation effected by capitalist markets that Marx analysed so well. (Haraway, 1991: p. 164)

The emotional and non-sacredness in physical objects is seen as clutter in the Cult of Less initiative to upload their material lives on external hard drives and online services platforms. The process of getting rid of this clutter goes through ‘documenting every single possession of mind, no matter how insignificant’; the objects in this situation were considered a burden, a source of expectations and responsibilities. (Cult of Less 2009, accessed 2010) So in a way, the transitional in Sherry Turkle’s physical objects is digitized in the Cult of Less ‘action’. Still both agree on the ‘cherishing’ concept, the first of actual objects and the second of online services that serve as a container for these objects.

Again another approach to the world of objects and their depiction is viewed through Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree, challenging belief through a glass of water, a glass shelf and a printed text in his sculpture. In a recorded video on the Tate Channel website, the artist says that he needed the text because he did not want it to be simply a name change of the object, and it is not just about that, It is not just a name I have changed; I have changed the actual object. The Oak Tree was meant to be how do I create the maximum imaginable transformation, and by way of doing it was to produce no transformation at all. This is something that other artists like Duchamp did, it is something that in the sixties and the early seventies, when I did the Oak Tree there was a lot of artists thinking about what is art, the base level of art, what is the fundamental thing in art. (Craig Martin 2008, accessed 2010)

The object could be a multiple of things at the same time; it could be ‘exhibited and displayed’, ‘given’, ‘exchanged’, ‘networked’, ‘collected’, ‘thrown away’, ‘found’, ‘worshipped’, ‘remembered’, ‘scrutinized’ and so on… in order not to state the obvious, one needs to understand that objects could have practical uses as well as symbolic function, and they could simply ‘encapsulate memories’… (Candlin & Guins, 2009)

In the preceding part, the cases studied show points of views cherishing the physical object and regarding it as a tool that one can think with while others regarded it as clutter and transformed it into digital data that holds memories of the physical. Whichever way the matter was considered, one thing seems clear: both theoreticians and practitioners were able to speak about their concerns through the power that resides in the world of objects. This idea of speaking through observing is therefore transitional – the transitional being any ‘external object that a person partially incorporates in the process of reorganizing its subjectivity’ (Marks, 2000: p. 78) -; and placing the ‘transitional’ in the new media world is what makes it ‘fluid’, as stated in Manovich’s definition earlier.

Part Two: Autobiographical Compositing

The return of the nomadic nature associated with ‘wireless networks and the use of ‘nomadic devices’ such as cell phones and PDAs’ (Paul, 2008: p. 216) triggered the obligation for practitioners in this era to intervene with projects conceived to be ‘experienced on the move, while doing other things’. These nomadic devices ‘are not contemplative at all’; they demand ‘new concepts and art experiences tuned with entropy and acceleration’. (Amerika, 2007: p. 270)

Compositing an autobiography in the new ‘nomadic’ era requires discussing certain aspects of language. William Burroughs (1970) argues that the written word preceded the spoken and states that the ‘written word is literally a virus that made spoken word possible’ and that ‘the word has not been recognized as a virus because it has achieved a state of stable symbiosis with the host’. The viral in Burroughs’s words becomes the generative in Marcel Proust’s language. In his autobiographical novel, Proust gives a lesson in the supremacy of the ‘involuntary memory’ and its ability to generate stories through a transitional object, for instance, a ‘Madeleine’, could trigger the following childhood memories:

… And as soon as I had recognised the taste of the piece of Madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents … the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. (Proust, 1913)

Involuntary memory is again an immense subject; the paper delimits it to Walter Benjamin’s definition that says ‘unlike remembrance, [involuntary] memory aims not to protect impressions but to disintegrate them’. Benjamin (1968 cited in Marks, 2000: p. 64)

The physical transitional object in Proust’s context becomes a new media transitional object in Mark Amerika’s digital poetics. For Amerika (2007), the more he engages in ‘asynchronous dialogues’, the more he realizes that the e-mail interview format is the one he feels totally comfortable with, and he sees that the ‘key concepts’ of his ‘own evolving digital poetics are often triggered in answering the questions of others’.

As a storyteller who is self-conscious of the power of narrative to deploy, a personal mythology by the interview/dialogue format to further invent both my practice and my artistic persona as a way to prophesize the near-future developments of (my own) writing. The sometimes nonlinear and dysfunctional sequence of the following sections is intentional because it attempts to reflect the often confusing, contradictory, and spontaneous thinking that went into the quick-paced transitions. (Amerika 2007: p. 164)

Amerika, M. (2003) Codework. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 29 November 2010].

Amerika’s method of generating narratives is defined better in Manovich’s theory on compositing in the digital, where this act of ‘compositing’ enables a ‘deep remixability’ in the new media’s moving image.

Compositing, which was at first a particular digital technique, designed to integrate two particular media of live action film and computer graphics becomes a ‘universal media integrator’. And, although compositing was originally created to support the aesthetics of cinematic realism, over time it actually had an opposite effect. Rather than forcing different media to fuse seamlessly, compositing led to the flourishing of numerous media hybrids where the juxtapositions between live and algorithmically generated, two-dimensional and three-dimensional, raster and vector are made deliberately visible rather than being hidden. (Manovich, 2005)

It is through email-based interviews that Amerika finds his comfortable position of narrating, and Manovich merely accredits this system and empowers it with his compositing theory. When Gilles Deleuze writes, ‘the present itself exists only as an infinitely contracted past which is constituted at the extreme point of the already-there’, (Deleuze, 1989: p. 98) compositing live becomes an immersive task, soaked with transitional units, embedding the fluidity of the new media objects in the present. An example of compositing live in the present generating new hybrids could be summarized in the person of the VJ that Amerika describes as

a hyperimprovisational narrative artist, who uses banks of QuickTime movie clips to construct on-the-fly stories composed of images processed in asynchronous realtime and through various theoretical and performative filters. (Amerika, 2007: p. 13)

Amerika goes on to describe the VJ’s task to include creative writing manipulating ‘matter and memory’ by composing live acts that place the movie loop as the ‘primary semantic unit of energy’. He stresses on the technical know-how of a VJ’s character who mixes this know-how with fluid practice in asynchronous realtime, thus plunging into a process of ‘myth-making’ in a narrative context even when the ‘so-called narrative itself is an antinarrative that works against conventional storytelling and standard rhetorical spin-control’.

The ‘banks of QuickTime movie clips’ are examples of the new media objects that Manovich defines earlier in this paper. They are also the tools that will make compositing an autobiography in the digital realm a ‘fluid’ task. However, this fluidity will act as a double-edged sword. The variability and the easily mutable nature embedded in these objects will also fail to create the definitive autobiographical version, the ‘whole’ portrait while ‘rewriting the self’.

Notes Preceding the Conclusion: Between Fluidity and the Whole

‘Rewriting the self’ is a term coined by Mark Freeman who suggests linking autobiography to ‘recollection’ and ‘development’:

‘re’ makes reference to the past, ‘collection’ makes reference to a present act, an act, as we put it earlier, of gathering together what might have been dispersed or lost. Framed another way, the word recollection holds within it reference to the two distinct ways we often speak about history: as the trail of past events or ‘past presents’ that have culminated in now and as the act of writing, the act of gathering them together, selectively and imaginatively, into a followable story… (Freeman, 1995: p. 48)

The ‘followable’ story of autobiographical writing has become ‘nomadic’ and ‘disembodied’ in the digital age; defining the latter concept, Christiane Paul explains that disembodiment does not only apply to our physical body but also to notions of the object and materiality in general. Information itself to a large extent seems to have lost its ‘body’, becoming an abstract ‘quality’ that can make a fluid transition between different states of materiality. (Paul, 2008: p. 174)

Manifestations of disembodiment in the digital can be observed in the artwork of George Legrady, who has created, in his project entitled ‘Pockets Full of Memory’ (2001) ‘a narrative environment that transcends the sum of its parts, reflecting both on the construction of narration and mediated memory’. (Paul, 2008: p. 178) In this project, Legrady invites guests to scan an object of their choice on a set station and then asks them to answer a query about the object they have chosen. Later an algorithm places the scanned objects on a self-organizing map based on classifications of description. Contributors can interpret each object’s data and can add extended comments and stories, creating a bridge from the ‘merely functional’ object to a ‘signifier of personal value’. (Legrady 2003, accessed 2010)

Legrady, G. (2001) Pockets full of memory. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 29 November 2010].

Did the ‘followable’ autobiography fall into a disembodied state or did it rise up to it? At this stage, questioning certain aspects of the ‘whole’ as opposed to the fluidity concept discussed earlier takes shape in a statement by Nietzsche in The Case of Wagner where he says ‘The whole no longer lives at all: it is composed, reckoned up, artificial, a fictitious thing’. (Nietzsche, 2008: p. 33)

The no longer existing ‘whole’ in Nietzsche’s era and statement is a form of regression in Foucault’s opinion, which we confine ourselves to, leading nowhere constructive; he reminds the reader that one needs to make sure that he/she does not leave the accident for the sake of a nice, smooth storyline, he says:

Perhaps we have reverted too often to a kind of wholistic fictionalization of the past, imposing unity and continuity on that which doesn’t deserve it. Perhaps, therefore, we ought to be paying greater attention to ‘discontinuities’, ‘ruptures’, ‘fissures’, and so on than we have. But this does not mean abandoning narrative… Foucault (1973 cited in Freeman, 1995: p. 48).

By no means abandoning narrative and rather shedding light on a ‘fissure’, or the moment of diagnosis with a malady, Alejandro Cesarco in his project Present Memory takes pictures of his doctor father, recently diagnosed with cancer, in his clinic, and later projects these photographs onto the same room and records the film screening with a video camera. ‘Conceived as a projection of a projection, its repetition creates a visual echo and activates a sense of déjà vu every time the viewer re-encounters it’. Documenting the actual father’s presence and the idea of anticipating his death (through projecting the images of the father in the room in the same room but emptied of the father’s presence), the project uses the constructed nature of memory as well as the anticipated, while writing a personal narrative. (Cesarco 2010, accessed 2010)

Cesarco, A. (2010) Present Memory. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 29 November 2010].

Nietzsche points out that in the case of decadence in literature, ‘life no longer animates the whole’, and that

words become predominant and leap right out of the sentence to which they belong, the sentences themselves trespass beyond their bounds, and obscure the sense of the whole page, and the page in its turn gains in vigour at the cost of the whole (Nietzsche, 2008: p. 33).

Nietzsche’s passage restores a sense of confidence to the ‘discontinuities’, ‘ruptures’ and ‘fissures’ that Foucault favors. The whole that is ‘no longer a whole’ as per Nietzsche’s words is backed up by his mere argument that ‘there is always anarchy among the atoms, [a sort of] disaggregation of the will’.

The disaggregation (or separateness into component parts) and destabilizing the idea of wholeness upon which power relies, is covered in an essay by Emily Peethick who refers to the Palace of Versailles back in 1678, when it was first built. She focuses on the hall of mirrors, and specifically the idea of mirrors which were supposed to reflect and affirm the sovereign’s power through the multiple reflections and refractions embedded in this object’s nature, and which she interprets in retrospect a few centuries later as a fragmentation of the image of the whole. (Sperlinger & White, 2008: p. 97) There is a sense of high criticality when it comes to the concept of the whole; it is a subject that produces a rigid vision for some. Even in past eras, people like André Malraux would judge for instance the work of art in a nineteenth century museum as imposing the wholly attitude in the spectator. Placed in that context, art objects were separated from their functions, ‘though a bust of Caesar […] may remain for us Caesar […], Count Duke Olivares has become pure Velasquez. What do we care who the Man with the Helmet or the Man with the Glove may have been in real life? For us their names are Rembrandt and Titian’. For Malraux, ‘a portrait has ceased to be primarily a likeness of an individual’. Malraux (1967 cited in Sperlinger & White, 2008: p. 164)

Shifting Malraux’s theory of the portrait that ceases to hold a true resemblance to the subject, and placing it in the core of autobiographical digital compositing, we go back to Amerika who elaborates on the idea of breaking the whole; he sees ‘narrative art as a place to work against the pull of false consciousness that we find in so much predetermined fiction writing’. (Amerika, 2008: p. 166) This can be seen in his active work against narrative closure where he tries to break the conventional tools of ‘character development, plot, setting, and proper grammar and/or syntax’ that comfort the reader and make him/her experience a disappointing ‘one-size-fits-all’ novel.

Conclusion

It was Vennavar Bush, back in 1945, in his famous essay As We May Think, who complained about data’s indexical nature – filing alphabetically and numerically –, which does not resemble the reality of the human mind that usually operates by association; grasping one item will instantly lead to another. Bush spoke about items not being fully permanent and memory being transitory. Based on the speed of action and the complexity of mental pictures, he started dreaming about ‘selection by association, rather than indexing’.

Seen in the 21st century’s context, Janet Murray explains scientific culture and the arts as two elements combining efforts to create a rich interplay of cultural practice and technical innovation. The first, scientific culture, designs mediums that augment people’s humanity through facilitating new ways of synthetic thinking; therefore, empowering the human mind to resolve more complex operations. The second, the arts, take on the task of chopping up the language and remixing it randomly to reach the arbitrary nature of the written and spoken signifiers we are currently witnessing. (Wardrip-Fruin & Montfort, 2003)

Murray’s vision of the arbitrary in arts and sciences opens up to randomness rather than to set reason or systems; in autobiographical compositing, rewriting the self becomes an impossible task if one is considering to create a ‘whole’ portrait; the human mind being in constant and continuous occurrence and the new media object being ‘variable’, ‘mutable’ and ‘liquid’. This is why the findings of this paper affirm the fluidity of autobiographical compositing through transitional digital objects, as well as the failure of creating the portrait of the whole, but do not judge the latter conclusion as necessarily inconvenient.

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Images Bibliography:

Amerika, M. (2003) Codework. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 29 November 2010].

Cesarco, A. (2010) Present Memory. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 29 November 2010].

Frampton, H. (1969) Lemon. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 29 November 2010].

Legrady, G. (2001) Pockets full of memory. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 29 November 2010].

Manovich, L. & Kratky, A. (2005) Soft cinema: navigating the database. [Snapshot from the DVD]. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.