What Lies on the Web REDUX

By Ben Slater

story-without-end-vicki-bennett.jpgStory Without End, 2005

Knowing the Networks

In 2002 I wrote a piece for Vertigo called ‘What Lies on the Web’, which tried to assess the types of moving images that were available online at the time, and which, if any, might offer a glimpse of future directions. Five years back feels like a very long way in net-time. This was just after the heady cash-fuelled optimism of the Y2K web-boom, a primitive period when the tech consistently failed to catch up with the hype. Streaming was a juddering, hiatus-filled prospect; downloading was rarely straightforward as multiple formats demanded multiple plug-ins and codecs – bits of software that could unlock compressed files. A three minute video took hours to figure out how to watch. My piece was, if I recall correctly, arguing for filmmakers to think about the web as a specific space, a viewing platform with certain unique conditions (unreliable, surrounded by porn and ephemera), which they should be responding to, feeding off, not ignoring. My great, bright hope was for the narrative interactivity espoused by Hi-Res, the web designers whose elegant promos for movies by Darren Aronofsky and Wayne Wang were more exciting than the films themselves.

Shortly afterwards I curated a programme with Jon Harrison at Lovebytes festival in Sheffield called ‘Search Engine Cinema’, which placed lush flash animation alongside Lego apocalypses, archive TV footage, un-American Star Wars fan films and amateur 9/11 uploads. The funders hated it, seeing no artistic merit whatsoever in this procession of badness. Where were the desktop auteurs that ubiquitous, cheap distribution was supposed to throw up? Answer – couldn’t find them, but this is what we saw. The programme was intended as a raw counter-weight to all the slick, hip, bloody-edged, spiky haired, CGI, graph/graff design, funky coolness that was being pimped around the world by digital film fests as the flipping future.

Broadband was looming even then, the word itself a whispered mantra for entrepreneurs and new media middle men. Where I then worked, in Sheffield’s Cultural Industry Quarter, there were people fashioning careers by vaguely outlining the potential of new ‘delivery systems’ – rapidly changing the subject whenever you asked about content.

Cut to a couple of years later and the connections got faster and fatter. Broadband was no longer abstract, but it wasn’t an overnight miracle for transport of moving images or web-design. Little had changed. Meanwhile, the idea of a digital film festival became increasingly anachronistic. All films were digital now. No need to define the territory, trying to commission films that referred to slow-loading times and the image-glitch. Over on the big screen the new Digital Video paradigms – the Dogme 95s, the Timecodes, the Waking Lives, and the Russian Arks, had all but exhausted themselves. These were paths that either hadn’t offered up much new to see in the first place, had been mapped onto prime time television, or were simply impossible to follow.

Then, in 2005, YouTube happened, a quiet, ingenious revolution open to anyone with a browser and eyes. Video converted into animated simulacra of video. No more codec hunting. An interesting thing about YouTube is that the space race for sharper, higher-def images was rendered irrelevant by speed, ease-of-use and the vast range of material. Quantity outweighed quality. Who needed DVD-esque clarity when you could call up classic and obscure arts docs from the 1980s, an ocean of trailers for never-to-be-seen features, test footage of new media, juvenile experiments, all possible kinds of amateur performance, leaked clips from tomorrow night’s television all over the world, and every single pop video ever made. This was the Search Engine Cinema we’d dreamed of – an LCD menagerie of delights, disasters, boredom and revelation. It’s Dionysian flipside, a whole bunch of sites driven by the same tech but specialising in clips of dancing, stripping webcam girls and boys, reality porn out-takes, stolen celebrities, extremist militia guillotine videos and all manner of mobile phone camera-shot pwnage (Google it!). The quaint notion of the ‘short film’, once heavily promoted as web content par excellence, hasn’t disappeared but it has been rendered rather insignificant by these many other distractions and spectacles.

story-without-end-vicki-bennett-2.jpgStory Without End, 2005

The impact that YouTube and its ilk will make on the ‘moving image’ industries of TV and cinema can’t be fully comprehended right now, but what of the fringes and edges of the culture? It’s the old funders’ question – are there brilliant artists lurking online right now, waiting to be discovered? Undoubtedly. In William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition, a fictional, anonymous auteur periodically uploads fragments of an experimental, abstract masterpiece (“the footage”) inspiring rampant online discussion among masses of followers. While an intriguing prospect, it read as an unlikely, naive scenario. It’s improbable that avant-garde cinema could ever develop so many devotees, no matter how hypnotic the imagery. When “the footage” did finally arrive in our apparently real life a few years later, it was in the form of patently fake web-reality show lonelygirl15, a media-stunt-cum-industry calling card. While she may not have been as seductively high-brow as Gibson’s projections, the ‘girl’ did point towards the obvious. When the authentic artists of the always-online generation make themselves visible, they’ll be responding to their surroundings, breathing in the user-created atmosphere and surprising us by revealing the beauty in this cluttered, overloaded, often unpleasant space.

Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher’s web project Learning To Love You More (learningtoloveyoumore.com) gives us a glimpse of one possible strategy, with its gentle demand for small DIY gestures of creativity on the part of users, which are then uploaded and archived on the site. These ‘assignments’ take the form of text, drawings, photographs, audio and video – and there’s something very moving about browsing the site, glancing over the diversity of versions, interpretations and levels of professionalism on display. Each thing is a labour of love, a heartfelt act of effort. Curated it may be (and destined for print and gallery incarnations), but it’s still based on a collaborative, communicative architecture that only the web makes possible.

At the Rotterdam International Film Festival, programmer Gertjan Zuilhof has bravely been digging around YouTube looking for original gems, from Asia in particular. He found the Taiwanese film RealOnline by John Hsu, previously an uploader of so-called ‘Machinima’ (videos made using player-controlled game footage, generally awful), which augments reality into an online game world, so that in a city street, ‘normal’ people walk around with their character names and health bars floating above their heads. It’s an initially dazzling, witty conceit in search of a good story. On a very different note is Though I Am Gone, a very well-made Chinese documentary directed by Hu Jie, about an atrocious act of violence during the Cultural Revolution, when a teacher was murdered by a group of fanatically communist female students. According to Zuilhof, the film hadn’t just been banned after being programmed for the Yunnan festival (in China), but the whole event had been ‘cancelled’. The film comes to light, broken down into 10 parts on YouTube, and a precious space is created (and one not to be taken for granted, as events in Thailand have shown).

Another space often overlooked is the treasure trove of archive.org, a holding zone of downloadable (as opposed to streaming) film and video footage of vastly differing provenances – from George Romero’s in-the-public-domain Night Of The Living Dead to Adam CurtisThe Power of Nightmares (itself a found footage artwork), all of which are available to be re-edited and re-purposed by users (although copyright hasn’t stopped many other things getting the unofficial remix treatment as well). It remains to be seen how far they will go.

More pathways open up, with far too much to see. The chances of finding that undiscovered online genius is slimmer than ever. Looking down at all those possibilities you get that feeling of vertigo in the purest sense – a morbid fear of the plunge mixed with an urgent desire to jump. See you in five years?

Ben Slater watches the world with curious eyes from the port/al that is Singapore. He writes, teaches, performs, blogs.