Michael Morris’ Hermeneutics: Visual Music, Expanded Cinema, New Aesthetic
By Michael Betancourt.
Michael Morris’ expanded cinema performances, Second Hermeneutic (2013) lasting approximately nine minutes, and Third Hermeneutic (2014) lasting approximately eleven minutes, are both produced using a combination of traditional 16mm film projectors and video; Third Hermeneutic also employs digital technology – a laptop computer running a custom Midi-controlled piece of software created with the open source system Pure Data/GEM to process the audio and video output [Figure 1]. Both performances engage with the relationships between technologies (both analog and digital) and the mediating role of the human performer in creating, directing and controlling these semi-autonomous analogue and digital systems. The engagement in his Hermeneutic performances shifts between the immaterial aspects of electronic and digital media and the physical constraints of the real world to align these expanded cinema performances with contemporary developments in digital art such as glitch, the new aesthetic and post-internet art. Morris’ engagements in these performances are a reconsideration of the nature of expanded cinema in terms of new digital technology; his documentation provides a clear representation of what happens in the performances, a prioritization of documentation for internet-enabled distribution common to post-internet art. The interrogation of analog and digital technology is the focus of these performances, even if it is not entirely apparent on screen: Morris as performer shares the space with the screen, integrating his actions into the imagery shown on screen.
In Second Hermeneutic, the visuals are created by a pair of graphic animated films projected [Figure 2] so that they partially overlap, the animated bands and fields of color [Figures 3, 4, 5] linked audibly to the soundtrack in an immediately synchronous way – as something appears on screen, there is a directly audible response. This sound emerges from his use of the video camera’s visual output run through his audioboard to the speakers: it is an analogue sonification of the video signal. As a purely audio-visual experience, the performance might seem similar to such early expanded cinema[i] works as Paul Sharits’ Shutter Interface (1975) where a series of four film projectors overlap their frames,[ii] creating juxtapositions and combinations on screen – as in Second Hermeneutic; however, the difference is instantly apparent in the performance itself – the soundtrack emerges from the interaction of projected imagery resembling the bands and bars of an optical soundtrack, but with the addition of saturated color.
Both performances belong to the tradition of “visual music.” These connections are especially prominent in Second Hermeneutic and apparent on screen. The animated bands whose patterns provide the source for the soundtrack are reminiscent of historical films that visualize their soundtracks as their images, such as Norman McLaren’s Synchromy (1971), Oskar Fischinger’s Ornament Sound (1932), or Rudolf Pfenninger’s Tones from Out of Nowhere (1931).[iii] The Constructivist dimensions of this heritage are equally apparent in how Josef Alber’s pictures, composed from bands of color, converge with the technological creation of audible sound. This connection to experiments with creating images that mirror the contents of the optical soundtrack is no accident: the sound being performed is at the same time the images projected and interacting on screen, where visuals become audible, mediated by technology. This mediation differentiates Morris’ performance from earlier (yet similar) works: the soundhead in a film projector is simply a light sensitive capacitor that translates light intensity into electrical voltage; when connected to a speaker, these electrical signals become the magnetic pulses which create vibrations – they become sound. It is a electrical system of transfer and translation that was developed in the 1920s[iv] and, except for refinements of the technology, has remained fundamentally constant. This technology is not what Morris employs in his performance – instead, his use of the analog electronic video signal in Second Hermeneutic prepares for his more complex audio-visual translation of video [Figure 6] with the addition of digital processing in Third Hermeneutic. These mediations bring the electronic nature of video and audio into a primary position through his use of analog and digital transformations of signal-information-sound. The unpleasant, even harsh, results of these transformations are a reflection of the autonomous processes at work in the electronic systems themselves.
The word hermeneutic in both titles is a description of what’s happening in this process of transformation – these performances dramatize a technological interpretative process – and an injunction to the audience. Hermeneutics are specifically concerned with interpretative processes, protocols and methodologies, which in the case of Second Hermeneutic appear in two mutually reinforcing ways, one technical and the other intellectual. The immediately obvious hermeneutic is the relationship between sight and sound: the images dynamically created by the two projects overlap is the source for the soundtrack.
Where traditional optical sound is a combination of electrical and mechanical technology, the system creating the sound in Second Hermeneutic is a hybrid system that employs a video camera to “see” what appears on screen, and then processes the video output directly into sound by connecting it to a loudspeaker. This transfer between image and audio is based in the variable voltages of the camera’s output; it is a traditional analog sonification of electrical signals. The characteristics of the analog video becomes a rhythmic series of irregular tones and oscillations that describe the different elements of the image signal.
Unlike the analog procedure to work in Second Hermeneutic, Third Hermeneutic employs a digital translation to create its sound via software, the output could take on any form: unlike optical sound, an analog process. The “printing out” of this technical translation links his work to the new aesthetics’ engagement with the physical realization of purely digital, autonomous production. The custom processor Morris created using the open source programming environment Pure Data (Pd) is a sonification patch which turns the digital video image into audio wave forms that are then played – a translation of machine vision into audible sound:
Pd is a so-called data flow programming language, where software called patches are developed graphically. Algorithmic functions are represented by objects, placed on a screen called canvas. Objects are connected together with cords, and data flows from one object to another through this cords. Each object performs a specific task, from very low level mathematic operations to complex audio or video functions such as reverberation, fft transform, or video decoding.[v]
The assembly of this software processor enables the shifting relationship between visual and audible, but the transfer is of an entirely different nature than the analog recording employed in historical optical sound. Where the densities producing sounds in an optical soundtrack are a physical remainder of an electrical response to light (much as the photo-chemical images of film are the response to light), in a digital system the data is a numerical sampling of these responses – a symbolic representation of an analog response, rather than the actual response [Figure 6]. This difference between analog and digital means that the digital is always an interpretation while the analog is always more like a footprint – physically linked evidence of the original source. The distinction between technologies becomes the formal focus of this performance as they dynamically interact on screen (via the video feedback loop of camera-video projector) [Figure 7, 8, 9, 10] and audibly (via the digital interpretation of image data into sound); this engagement is specifically a feature of how the new aesthetic addresses the translation of physical reality into digital and back into a newly transformed physical form.
The interpreted nature of the digital sound/image is the focus of the performance: this interpretive dimension appears centrally in this piece. The title “Second Hermeneutic” draws attention to the role of digital interpretation of analog phenomena, and the performance itself stages an encounter between a digital system (soundtrack) and an analog system (image) in such a way that their collision becomes apparent for the audience: the sounds created by the software are tortured electronic screams bordering on, but not, a cacophony. There is order to the sound, and its counterpoint to the images on screen renders the sonification coherent through the self-evident relationship between what happens on screen and how the sound changes in response.
On screen, the “language” of abstract form provides the referent for what happens in this performance. It is a performance where the relationship to historical visual music and abstraction functions semiotically, rather than as evocation of a visionary experience. This distinction between analog and digital has important implications when considered as a hermeneutic. The manipulation of how the graphic forms become audible is an arbitrary decision that Morris controls. The digital system does not “read” the relationship of patterns as a direct analogue to electrical voltage (as an optical soundhead would), but uses an algorithm to arrive at its conversion into sound. These forms appear in Second Hermeneutic as emblematic representations of “optical sound,” even though the historically functional link is arbitrary, recasting these forms as pure abstraction. As with similar forms in work by Pfenninger’s films such as Tones from Out of Nowhere (1931), the patters shown re simultaneously abstract and representational – the lines in an optical soundtrack are analogous to the voltages they generate – but in Morris’ performance, the use of a video camera complicates this process through its translation of these images into a video signal.
Video is the sampling of analog phenomena (light reflected off a screen), transforming the source materials into a series of discrete and uniform mathematical expressions of value that have a specific meaning when connected to a video monitor or projector – a semiotic element that structures and organizes the video signal – when connected to a loudspeaker these voltages that “play” the images into sound. The direct, analogical relationship between pattern and sound in the historical films, rather than Morris’ work, is mediated by the video camera’s sampling, transforming it from physical analogue to an autonomous product of the machine, rather than a shift or change in state.
Other differences with historical visual music are more subtle. The internal system of analogy between sound and imagery in visual music films aspired to become an expression of (human) transcendence in a revelatory fashion; the semiotic basis for Second Hermeneutic abandons this metaphysical foundation for its imagery. This distinction from historical visual music renders the performance contemporary rather than nostalgic; it does not attempt to revivify antique forms and historical aesthetics. This semiotic abstraction is a doubling of differences. The technical interpretation of digital technology reflects and demonstrates the human dimensions: where visual music sought an invention of form capable of providing a phenomenological encounter with the numinous, the digital interpretation and translation of imagery-into-sound replaces this metaphysics with semiotics: a hermeneutic is specifically concerned with proximate interpretation, whether in the form of exegesis on religious text, or more generally. The focus necessarily becomes highly granular and precise.
At the same time, semiotic abstraction acts to draw attention to the specifically linguistic dimensions of its appearance and manipulation, as an invocation of the metaphysical content that is rendered contingent and self-consciously a part of the work’s meaning. The transcendent aspects of this performance are a function of how the audience engages and interprets, not an immanent externality to encounter, but something that must be constructed through a hermeneutic process that is dependent on the performance.
These dynamics of interpretation and encounter are not limited to the human audience. The human concerns become obvious contingencies precisely because they are not something that can be assumed. The performance of Third Hermeneutic is an encounter between two reproductive technologies mediated by a human performer – Morris himself – who directs and organizes the machines’ encounters with each other. The difference between active and passive technologies demonstrates the distinctions between digital computers and the historical analog machines they replaced. The film projectors simply project: the machine runs in a linear fashion, passively unspooling the film; in contrast, the digital machine watches, the DV camera sees the screen, and the software actively interprets a response. The performer mediates between these machines, constraining their action, drawing attention to the human element in the construction and generation of the metaphysical content of the semiotic abstraction appearing on screen. The central elements of this performance render the human central, but external to an actively inhuman hermeneutic protocol.
Third Hermeneutic is an expanded cinema variant of the “new aesthetic” where the performance itself becomes a microcosm of relationships between digital (machine) vision governed by algorithm and software and its manifestation in the physical world. Like all digital works, it simulates an earlier already-familiar form, that of expanded cinema; however, it is an expansion that overlays the historical field with an entirely new, different set of formal approaches, in the process suggesting a re-imagining of what “expanded cinema” entails. Gene Youngblood’s 1970 definition emphasized the human dimensions in the preface to his book Expanded Cinema:
When we say expanded cinema we actually mean expanded consciousness. Expanded cinema does not mean computer films, video phosphors, atomic light, or spherical projections. Expanded cinema isn’t a movie at all: like life it’s a process of becoming … One can no longer specialize in a single discipline and hope truthfully to express a clear picture of its relationships in the environment. This is especially true in the case of the intermedia network of cinema and television, which now functions as nothing less than the nervous system of mankind.[vi]
Expanded cinema was about expanded human consciousness, but it contained a generative potential that comes to invisibly dominate Morris’ reconfiguration of this heritage: the digital interpretation displaces human consciousness into the position of mediator, rather than the central focus of the work. It is his direction and channeling of the autonomous machine that emerges through the performance. Morris decides the action of machineries that run independently of his decisions – he intervenes in their function, creating a stoppage that redirects the progression of the images, the sonification, choosing the duration and speed for the projectors to unspool. His role as the consciousness directing the machines – the intellectual “organ” of this cyberiad – an action that affirms the presence of the artist in the work. In Morris’ work, the potential for transcendent experience is forcefully separated from the apparatus of its creation. Instead of liberating humanity, it reveals humanity’s subordination to the machine.
Yet it is a subordination that remains central to this entire process – without the mediating role of the human performer, there can be no performance. It is not simply that the entirety of this event is set in motion by human action, but that it depends on human actions throughout to create its form and organize it into a coherent presentation. The embedded nature of the human role becomes specifically apparent during the video feedback sequences of Third Hermeneutic: the oscillating words on screen that cycle into and out of phase with the projected imagery is a reflection of the human actor. The contents of these texts recalls Andre Bazin’s comments about motion pictures and their relationship to photography:
A film is no longer limited to preserving the object sheathed in its moment, like the intact bodies of insects from a bygone era preserved in amber. [. . .] Only the impassive lens, in stripping the object of habits and preconceived notions, of all the spiritual detritus that my perception has wrapped it in, can offer it up unsullied to my attention and thus to my love. In the photograph, a natural image of a world we no longer able to see, nature finally does more than imitate art: it imitates the artist.[vii]
Bazin’s observations about photography and motion pictures offering the world “up unsullied to my attention and thus to my love” are specifically concerned with the recovery of a world no longer present, restoring it to the human gaze imply a denial of time and of historical processes: the making-present of the motion picture is implicitly a function of how all projections are also performances. This aspect is the central focus of the human-as-mediator in Third Hermeneutic, acknowledged on screen by the statements rendered through fades and video feedback:
When we are together / whatever it is / that’s created in that space / is not just us but something more, something beautiful. / How can a word like Love be understood, interpreted, translated, known? / Can it be known without knowing the speaker / the life of the speaker / the speaker’s voice? / and you reader: at what point do you lose yourself in the process of knowing?
If this text questions Bazin’s discussion of realism and photography, it’s a suggestion that seems appropriate, given the historical imager, including a photograph of Lana Turner and an excerpt from the Lumiere film L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896) that apocryphally caused audiences to cower behind their seats and flee the theater. This revivification of a past world through cinema is the restoration that concerns Bazin and which Morris interrogates through his collage process. What does this statement, “thus to my love,” mean except to bring this past world back into life, a performance that is at the same time a ghostly apparition of things long past? The entirety of the cinematic apparatus – from the pro-filmic to the cinema theatre – are organized only to achieve this human concern with reanimation. The ontologies of the photographic image, so central to Bazin’s theory, reflect his demand that the image be linked to this past, absent world that the projector reanimates; without a connection to the physical-yet-absent world, these images lose their necessity for existing because for Bazin they are the definitive moment showing this reality does exist, that the people were alive, and the events shown did happen. This human element remains central to the entire cinematic process for Bazin, since without it, the projected image becomes pointless, meaningless in itself. It is a reminder that cinema without an audience is not cinema at all, but just so much machinery.
Morris’ use of visual music forms in both Second and Third Hermeneutics is thus logical, even necessary: these expanded cinema works function as critiques and interrogations of the apparent displacement of human action and engagement by the digital (and earlier analog) technologies he uses. They restore the centrality of human activity to the work, drawing attention to how these works are made as much as the reasons why. By restoring the centrality of human action to the consideration of cinematic performance, Morris insists on the necessary role that the human must play in rendering these works coherent and meaningful: the hermeneutic that is actively engaged in these works is not simply new technologies interpreting and transforming older technology, but an engagement that asserts a crucial, mediating role for the human performer-director acting in dialogue with these automatic systems.
[i] There are many books covering the history of expanded cinema. See for example, David Curtis, A.L. Rees, Duncan White and Steven Ball. Expanded Cinema: Art Performance Film. (London: Tate, 2011) or Catherine Elwes. Installation and the Moving Image (New York: Wallflower Press, 2015).
[ii] Weibel, Peter. “The Development of Light Art,” in Light Art from Artificial Light (Karlsruhe: Hatje Kanz, 2006) pp. 190-191.
[iii] Lista, Marcella. “Empreintes sonores et metaphores tactiles,” in Sons et Lumieres (Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2004) pp. 63-76.
[iv] Green, Fitzhugh. The Film Finds Its Tongue (New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1929).
[v] “Pure Data – Community Site” Pure Data website https://puredata.info/ retrieved July 15, 2015.
[vi] Youngblood, Gene. Expanded Cinema (New York: Dutton, 1970) p. 41.
[vii] Bazin, Andre. What is Cinema? trans. Timothy Barnard (Montreal: Caboose, 2009) pp. 8-9.
Michael Betancourt is a theorist, historian, and artist concerned with digital technology and capitalist ideology. He is the author of The ____________ Manifesto, The History of Motion Graphics, Beyond Spatial Montage: Windowing, or, the Cinematic Displacement of Time, Motion, and Space, and The Critique of Digital Capitalism. He has exhibited internationally, and his work has been translated into Chinese, French, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Persian, Portuguese, and Spanish, and published in journals such as CTheory, Semiotica, and Leonardo.