Images in, of, and Time

Virginia Kuhn

Associate Professor, School of Cinematic Arts, USC

 

How do perceptions of time shift as we move from analogue to digital representations, from the clock’s moving hands to the numbers of digital time?  Is the added precision of numbers a benefit or does it remind us of the relentless passage of time without providing a sense of the whole, as the circular clock face does?  Certainly, the move from image-based to numerical representations of time reflects the increasing reliance on algorithmic processes that characterize contemporary life, while it also mirrors the move from analogue to digital cinema, a shift that informs much of my research, scholarship and pedagogy.

The seed of this video essay, which functions as a digital argument, [1] did not issue from the questions that animate my professional life however; rather its origins are more personal in nature. A few months before my fifty-fifth birthday, I began noticing that whenever I looked at my phone—something I do infrequently—the time was 11:11.  Whether it was 11:11 AM or 11:11 PM, it occurred several times a week for several weeks. Once I became attuned to it, I began taking screenshots of the phenomenon and other doubles emerged: 12:12, 10:10 and then lots of 4:44’s. The triple fours seemed especially uncanny; I was born on 4-4 and have always felt an affinity for the number. In the weeks and days just before my birthday—I was turning 5-5 on 4-4—there were so many occurrences, I felt compelled to explore them in some way. They simply would not be ignored.

As if to reinforce this notion, I happened upon BRAND: A Second Coming, a documentary that traces comedian Russell Brand’s spiritual awakening and the profound shift in his life after a visit to India sparked his sudden awareness of the profound economic inequities in the world today. Before Brand’s 33rd birthday, he kept seeing the number 33 “everywhere” and while he initially took it as a sign of foreboding, one that predicted his death at age 33, as 2008 passed without incident and he kept seeing 33, he decided to view it as a sign that what was happening in that moment was Truth. It was a cosmic signal given to a human constrained by his five senses, a way to access information beyond that which he can perceive through his sensory organs.

I was struck by Brand’s notion as it gave voice to something I had been feeling. And while my continued sightings of these double digits do not always seem to mark a moment of truth (or Truth), I use their occurrences to pause, to be present, to freeze time for a moment in order to observe my inner and outer worlds.  I do this in an attempt to break my habitual ways of thinking, acting and reacting. I do this to adopt a stance of openness and contemplation, one that pushes back on the frenzy of life with its constant and multiple pulls on my time and energy. I do this in the hope of becoming a better human and a more insightful scholar.

This video represents a more sustained aspect of these momentary reflections. It is both an exploration and an instantiation of my intent to move beyond comfortable ways of thinking about and expressing scholarship. Although I have edited two peer-reviewed collections of video essays [2] and have been teaching remix/digital argument for nearly a decade, I have approached my own video pieces using more traditional (written) forms scholarship, citing theory, clinging to at least some semblance of clear narrative progression and eliding myself as much as possible.  And yet, there is nothing about my conception of the digital argument that necessitates the type of critical distance and presumed objectivity of  conventional academic essays and in fact, forays into the affective register that digital media make possible are effectively foreclosed by imposing conventions borne of print based scholarship upon them. Moreover, as a feminist, I am well trained in keeping my personal and professional lives separate and distinct, a stance I find increasingly untenable, if uncomfortable to shed.

Approaching the video essay as a digital argument allows a type of openness to possibilities that might otherwise lie dormant, exploiting the potentials of digital media with less regard for how they should be used. This approach is a more secular one: It rejects the sort of “false religiosity” [3] accorded to art and instead embraces the dialogic as it cites, synthesizes, and juxtaposes its sources. The digital argument views all registers of meaning as valid and compelling semiotic resources. It embraces affect as a key way of knowing, even if the knowledge gained cannot be articulated in words. It uses cadence, rhythm, stillness and frenzy, all aspects of orality, along with the logics and conventions of literate culture. In this way, the digital argument represents a goal of semiotic equity that does not dictate who may speak and who is silenced.

 

Notes

[1] I elaborate upon this approach in “The Rhetoric of Remix,” which was published in 2012 in Transformative Works and Culture. It is my most frequently cited article to date, and is widely taught in cinema and media classes. This piece outlines my approach to teaching video as well as to making them.

[2] Virginia Kuhn and Victor Vitanza, Eds, From Gallery to Webtext: A Multimodal Anthology (Kairos, 2008) and Victor Vitanza and Virginia Kuhn, Eds,  MoMLA: From Panel to Gallery (Kairos, 2013).

[3] John Berger makes this point repeatedly in Ways of Seeing, the 1972 BBC television series that was later made into a book.

 

References

Brand: A Second Coming. Directed by Ondi Timoner, 2015.

Dali, Salvatore. Soft watch melting,  jpeg.

______ The persistence of memory, circa 1931, jpeg.

______ The dissolution of the persistence of memory, jpeg.

Edge of Dreaming. Directed by Amie Hardie, 2009. [Irving Weissman interview]

The Five Obstructions. Directed by Jorgen Leth and Lars Von Trier, 2003.

Gould, Stephen Jay. “A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse,” The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History. New York: Norton. 98 and 100-101. 1980.

Koyaanisqatsi. Directed by Godfrey Reggio, 1982.

Kuhn, Virginia. “The Rhetoric of Remix.” In “Fan/Remix Video,” edited by Francesca Coppa and Julie Levin Russo, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 9. 2012. doi:10.3983/twc.2012.0358.

Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon, Sony 4, 1973. Compact Disc.

PRI’s  The World, National Public Radio. iTunes. June 27, 2016. 43:38-50:21.

Radiohead,  OK Computer, XL Recordings 6, 1997.

The Quantum Activist. Directed by Renee Slade and Ri Stewart, 2009.

The Singularity. Directed by Doug Wolens, 2012. [Ray Kurzweil interview]

 

The Cine-Files, issue 11 (fall 2016)