Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"to hold a future body so close to one's own"

I went to college with experimental film/video maker Evan Meaney, whose work has continually surprised and inspired me. His most recent endeavors have been contained in the large body of work entitled "Ceibas," which is an exploration of myth: the myth of the Ceiba tree, as well as the myth of digital video. In the series, Meaney has been exploring the infrastructure of digital video, and the ways in which it breaks down both naturally and forcibly by hacking the hexadecimal and ASCII coding. His images are stunning and visceral despite often feeling incredibly passive, which is a testament to Meaney as both a maker and an editor. The work is also largely devoid of text (minus "prologue – How Mayan Lovers Might Find the Next Life" (2007)), which has previously been a signature of his work.

The newest installation in the Ceibas cycle is "to hold a future body so close to one's own," an online-gallery-based work that seeks to explore the passage of time. Time degrades all things, and it is no secret that digital media are vulnerable to this decay. However, where previously this decay and glitching has been transparent, written off just as simply as hairs or dust on a film print, here the decay is not only forced, it is the focus. These video portraits of 27 people have been dutifully hacked, but the differences between them are astounding.

This difference is possible because each video was originally compressed with a different video codec. What Meaney brings out in this simple, face-to-face examination is how startlingly differently each codec handles the synthesis of digital imagery through the web of pixelation. While different film stocks have always rendered different styles of images, they have all maintained the same basic physical infrastructure of silver hallide crystals on a celluloid emulsion. However, what Meaney makes clear is that the underlying structures of digital codecs are not subtle in their differences, and it is far from inconsequential what codec one uses. The result is staggering. What is equally exciting is that some codecs that might not be preferable initially to those concerned with as much image fidelity as possible become the ones that yield the most starkly beautiful decay, reminding the viewer that things are never as they seem, and of an overwhelming sense of transience.

Also, Meaney's choice to use portraits of people, rather than any kind of stagnant scene or simple color backdrop, is integral. Besides the obvious metaphor that "all people are different," the use of different faces becomes integral to the advancement of the Ceibas myth exploration. The subjects of these portraits become endeared, and the forced-decay of their visages invokes the lament of past lovers, lost to the sands of time and the breakdown of memory. Thought of in this light, the work yields startlingly fruitful emotional territory that rests complimetarily against its more somber predecessors of the series. As Meaney thinks of his codecs and decayed videos as children, so too do the subjects become our own wards, to whose faces we feel a sense of responsibility.

Evan Meaney's choices in exhibition method are crucial. The reason it exists on the internet rather than in a physical gallery, Meaney says, is that "these works wish to inhabit screens; as many as they can." And he has made good on this promise by including downloadable versions of every single clip for mobile devices. Which is part of the reason why this work is so important. One of today's most crucial discourses is happening between the old powers and the new, the copyright and the copyleft. The internet allows all digital media to be infinitely available to every person on the planet, which is a harrowing prospect to some. But others in the new generation understand that the desire to possess and control properties (intellectual or otherwise) is passé and unfashionable. The new face of distribution is limitless, and "to hold a future body" is a recognition of this fact.

Since its inception, digital video has largely been accepted as a transparent medium due to its pervasiveness in society and internet culture, its availability to the masses with terrifying ease. Its foundation, its structure, however, has hardly been explored or addressed in any forum outside of the technical community. While many past works have sought to utilize and exploit the medium for its lo-fi feel, the realism that it falsely professes due to its faster frame rate, and other reasons, no one has gone to the lengths that Meaney has in deconstructing the medium into its parts like an atom-smashing particle physicist. And, in doing so, he has revealed the medium to be a much more vibrant and beautiful one than previously believed. It is this previous lack of exploration that makes Meaney's work so timely and necessary.

Ultimately, this work is a confrontation. It is a confrontation with faces, a confrontation with history, and a confrontation with a thoroughly, and now revealed to be unjustly unexplored medium. And ultimately, it poses a question: What does "archival" really mean, and who will wait for us until we, too, are gone?

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