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“see what you mean”

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A famous passage from Joyce’s Portrait:

The dramatic form is reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round each person fills every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper intangible esthetic life. The personality of the artist, at first a cry or cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalises itself, so to speak. The esthetic image in the dramatic form is purified in and reprojected from the human imagination. The mystery of esthetic like that of material creation is accomplished. The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.

The ambiguity of literary modernism’s dream of “impersonal” art is brilliantly captured in the stringing together of “invisible” and “refined out of existence.” Can’t, of course, be both at the same time: either the artist is there but hidden or has actually been wrung out of the work. The oscillation between egotistical artistic supremacy and the “death of the author” is one of the rhythms that define the progression of this period’s work.

I tend to be more interested in the “no artist” side of the issue than the other, because I think a good bit of what utopian / progressivist tendencies or even side effects there are to be found in the works of such figures as Joyce and Beckett, Woolf and Proust are to be found there. And I’m also very interested in the legacy of this preoccupation on the part of the “high modernists.”

One place that we find its development, of course, are in all of the strategies of opening works to contingency and randomness practiced by fellow modernists and figures that are usually affiliated with later schools / periods. Automatic writing, from Yeats through the surrealists and onward. Burroughs’s cut-ups. All sorts of “found art” tactics. Often enough, these techniques are staked either on the “unconscious” as the black box that generates the disorder or the disorder as the means that gives access to the truths of the unconscious.

But there is another way to think about impersonality – or maybe even to do impersonal art. And while I’m sure there is precedent for this sort of idea (commenters?) – a few things I’ve been seeing around the internet and on tv have got me thinking in a different direction.

The first is this tv commercial:

It’s fairly difficult to discern what exactly this ad is meant to sell. The Dassault website is only somewhat helpful…

Sophisticated technologies tend to be the preserve of experts. Today, Dassault Systèmes wants to break with this tradition and establish 3D technology as a new universal language with applications in every walk of life. But that’s not all. At Dassault Systèmes, we also strongly believe that the more advanced and complex technology becomes, the easier it should be to use.

To express this groundbreaking vision – and the major advances we have driven in 3D technology in terms of capability, flexibility and ease of use – French advertising agency devarrieuxvillaret has created a new tagline for Dassault Systèmes:

See What You Mean.

OK… “Universal language,” eh? (Of course, Dassault is best known for making warplanes…. and for owning Le Figaro…)

At any rate, the ad is a mashup of SimCity (the bit where the building flashes red because it’s not connected up to the underground utility conduits is the deadest giveaway) and letraset type peopleoids (not sure if that’s the appropriate term for the little guys pictured below or not…)

That’s all well and good. It’s likely the sort of ad that presents a image of something not yet possible, but which, by triggering a mass-fantasy, will urge that impossible thing into existence… Not unlike the fancy computer interface in Minority Report….

But what interests me in particular about this ad is the way that it proposes a new form of fiction, not yet possible, but dreamed of, perhaps, for at least the last 150 years. (The Joyce quote is, of course, only a plagiarized version of a few passages from Flaubert’s letters). What would it be like to use a technology like the one shown in the commercial as a technology for the creation of fiction? A fiction in which the “characters” were left to roam “on their own” a preconstructed section of “reality” forged by the artist, following the imperatives wired into their advanced AI? The little people stuck in the traffic jam in the ad, the pedestrians yelling at the cars – what would it be like if we could follow them closely, “hear” what they are thinking, establish ever more complex situations to drop them into? Fiction as experiment in a sense truer than any that has ever before been attempted. Fiction, at last, opened to the contingency and unpredictability that it has crept towards, largely unsuccessfullly, during the entirely of the period that we label the “modern.”

I am not talking about machinima, not the way it is practiced now, anyway. I am not talking about “user-controlled” “characters”….

Anyway, so that’s the first trigger. Second is this, which handles things a bit differently.

“Anthroptic” is an edition of 80 hand-made artist books that represents the collaboration between new media artist Ethan Ham and writer Benjamin Rosenbaum. The book contains 8 folios that pair one image with one “chapter” of the story. The images were taken from Ethan’s online project “Self-Portraits” in which he trained a facial recognition program to his face before unleashing it onto the internet photo service Flickr. While searching the millions of photos on Flickr for its creator, the computer program sometimes made mistakes, identifying inanimate objects as Ethan. These mistake images became the starting point for Benjamin’s short short story. Benjamin weaves these images into an exquisitely interconnected tale that can be read in any order.

Scripted recognitions, epiphanies. Algorithmic revelations. That sort of thing. Robotic portraiture. You start to see where I am going here with this…

The final example came through today, via we make money not art.

(re)collector is a public art installation that approaches Cambridge as a ‘museum of the mind’, using cameras to acquire memorable images that can then be reorganised into ideas. The Greek concept of ut pictura poesis claims that poetry is more ‘imageful’ than prose. In this project, the cameras do not document Cambridge using a simple, straightforward archive of events, but rather seek to record a collection of dramatic moments. The city becomes a tableau for pictura poesis, with events amplified through combinations of framing, movement, and silence, becoming more memorable and cohesive as a result.

This interesting enough at this point, the idea of constructing “ideas” or narratives out of CCTV footage. But where things get truly fascinating comes in the next paragraph:

The gothic character of the Bridge of Sighs, King’s College Chapel and various city centre side streets present backdrops for extracting cinematic moments from peoples’ everyday activities. Surveillance cameras installed around the city, will be programmed to recognise and capture public activities including farewell scenes, meetings, escape scenes, chases, love scenes, etc. Each day over the festival, the results will be edited to produce a daily feature film, complete with premise, protagonists, locations, plot, to be viewed at a public screening in Cambridge during the festival programme. The movie’s audience is composed of many of the same people that feature in it; the project seeks to renegotiate our relationship with where we live by showing us the latent narratives embedded in our everyday lives that we cannot see.

I’d love to know exactly how the cameras are programmed to decide what a moment of fictional significance, of narrative crisis, looks like. (I certainly don’t doubt that it can be done as it is already being done). And what if instead of humans getting involved with the editing of the clips into a coherent narrative, the machine performed that task as well. Surely, the recognition of a “love scene” is more complicated than sticking the scenes together in some sort of coherent order.

I’m going to have to write a follow-up post, unfortunately, detailing the aesthetic and political ramifications I think might come of such endeavors when focused properly, as I’m too beat to continue tonight. A few of the words and phrases, though, that are hovering about in my mind include “fiction as experiment,” “(repurposed) automatic behavioral detection,” “automation for automation’s sake,” “interchangeable parts,” “autonomy vs. advertisement” and…. “(truly) socialist realism.”

More soon… Sorry to defer the punchline…

(NB: I should say that I do know that some parallel work is being done on this sort of thing by the media/body people, by, for instance. But it nevertheless seems to me that I am aiming in a slightly to very different direction than much of that very helpful work…)

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 18, 2007 at 12:02 am

2 Responses

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  1. I think you have made some interesting observations about the Dassault commercial and the oppurtunity for the future of fantasy creations. The system that it is being advertising is actually a BIM (building information modeling) software used in the construction industry. It is a parametric design program. By changing the the parameters of a component the rest of the model. While the software’s capability is only comparable to the commercial in an artistic way, the concept has been around in the aircrfat industry for years. Now the new buzz word for the construction industry. Google- BIM also check out REVIT another parametric design software that focuses on architectural design.

    Erik

    May 9, 2007 at 9:26 am

  2. This is extremely helpful, Erik. This bit – “By changing the the parameters of a component the rest of the model” – is exactly what I am fantasizing about in terms of some sort of alternative mode of “fiction.” But thanks so much for pointing me in the right direction!

    CR

    May 9, 2007 at 11:55 pm


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