Next week, I will be speaking in New York at this conference. For reasons I do not understand, they have asked for all the papers to be submitted in advance, and say they will give them out to whoever comes to hear the talks. To my mind, this makes the conference itself superfluous — why sit through a bunch of talks, when you can read them much more easily and quickly? But whatever.
In any case, here is my talk on “The Aesthetics of Workflow.” My initial plan was much more ambitious — in addition to speaking about Anthony Mandler’s video for Rihanna’s “Disturbia”, I was also going to discuss two other music videos: Grant Singer’s video for Sky Ferreira’s “Night Time, My Time”, and Tom Beard and FKA twigs’ video for FKA twigs’ “Papi Pacify”. Part of the idea was to discuss videos for women singers at three levels of the music industry: superstar (Rihanna), emerging (& so far) midlevel artist (Sky Ferreira), and little-known independent (FKA twigs). All three videos are poweful and challenging, but I think that the different economic scales makes for different modes of expression as well.
However, this was not to be. So far I haven’t had enough time to write about these other two videos. And even if I had, I would end up with a talk that would probably be two hours long — something much better read than delivered live. So I will leave these two additional videos for later consideration. (I should add, however, that I showed “Night Time, My Time” to my Intro to Film students. One of them remarked, in response, that he would play this video at the end of a party, when he wanted to get everyone to leave. I take this as a strong compliment to the video — and I hope that Ferreira and Singer would take the comment in this spirit as well).
As for what I have written already, I feel like I haven’t really gotten to the bottom of this. There’s a lot more to say about Rihanna; and, as always when I write about music videos, I feel self-conscious about my inability to say enough about the music in formalist terms.
But anyway, here’s the text of my talk, in two parts:
“Workflow” is a term that is increasingly being used today in digital audiovisual production. In the words of the film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky:
“Workflow” describes the relationship between production and post-production — shooting and editing. A workflow encompasses everything from the hard drives on which image data is recorded to the final delivery of the film for distribution. Workflow theories emphasize flexibility and maneuverability.
Vishnevetsky’s point is not just that the term “workflow” is increasingly being used by film- and videomakers themselves, in order to designate how they employ digital tools; but also, and just as importantly, that the new practices designated by the term need to be analyzed by critics and theorists of audiovisual media. Recent developments in digital technology have not only led to radical changes in film and video production methods; they have also led to new audiovisual formal structures and styles — or more loosely, to a new sort of “look and feel” for audiovisual artifacts.
Of course, this workflow “look and feel” is far from universal; and there is no necessary correspondence between technologies of production and final products. Neoliberal economic activity in general is organized on the basis of supposed “flexibility and maneuverability.” Even when they are making works that still look and sound like older, more traditional productions, Film- and videomakers employ workflow methods in order to save time and money, cut corners, and respond quickly to frequent demands from clients. There are also artists — Michel Gondry is a good example — who exhibit a laudable streak of stubborn perversity: they go out of their way to produce works in which digital-seeming effects are in fact created through older, analog means.
Nonetheless, the new technologies and production practices of workflow offer new affordances to film- and videomakers. They open the way for new expressive possibilities — even though these possibilities are often not taken up. As Stanley Cavell puts it in relation to film, “the aesthetic possibilities of a medium are not givens…. Only the art itself can discover its possibilities, and the discovery of a new possibility is the discovery of a new medium.” Similarly, the potential expressive uses of today’s new digital technologies cannot be known in advance; they can only be discovered or invented, and then elaborated, in the course of actual audiovisual production. At their best, the technologies and practices of workflow lead to a new audiovisual aesthetic.
Vishnevetsky refers to “workflow” mostly in the context of digital cinema: his article explicitly discusses recent movies by David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh. But I am more interested in looking instead at contemporary music videos. There are several reasons for this. On a personal level, working with music videos allows me to combine my enthusiasm as a pop music fan (despite my lack of musical training) with my more formal concerns as a scholar of audiovisual media. On a more distanced level, music videos fascinate me because they are so complexly overdetermined. Something like Italian operas in the 19th century, or Broadway and MGM musicals in the 20th, music videos are a hybrid, impure form — and indeed a necessarily compromised one. They almost never have the status of independent, self-subsistent works. Even more than other pop-cultural forms, they are subject to the whims of marketers and publicists. They are based upon pre-existing musical material, which usually wasn’t created with them in mind. They most often serve the derivative purposes of advertising the songs for which they were made, and of contributing to the larger-than-life, transmedia personae of their performers. In addition, music videos frequently remediate older media contents: alluding to, sampling and recombining, or unambiguously plagiarizing material from movies, television, fashion photography, and experimental art. Music videos thus always remain illustrative and externally referential — the cardinal sins according to modernist theories of art.
And yet, despite all this — or is it rather because of all this? — music videos are often deeply self-reflexive, and strikingly innovative in form and technique. They push the latest production technologies to their limits; and they experiment with new modes of visualization and expression. Precisely because their sonic content already comes ready-made, and because they are of such limited length, they do not need to conform to older modes of audiovisual organization. They are free to ignore Hollywood mainstays like narrative structures and continuity conventions. Even before the rise of digital sound and image technologies, Michel Chion noted that music videos exhibited “a joyous rhetoric of images,” made possible by the fact that “the image is conspicuously attaching itself to some music that was sufficient to itself.” Music videos are strictly speaking superfluous — and this is what gives them a space for free invention. Chion adds that, in many music videos, “the rapid succession of shots creates a sense of visual polyphony and even of simultaneity, even as we see only a single image at a time.”
If this was already the case when Chion was writing in 1990, it is even more fully so today, in the age of digital workflow. As Vishnevetsky notes, the chief characteristic of the workflow aesthetic is that it blurs the line between production and post-production. Of course, this makes it easier for film- and videomakers to change their minds, and to recast all their material even at the last moment. But workflow practices also have ontological consequences, because they erase the distinction between those aspects of audiovisual material that are actually placed before the camera and sound recorder, and those that are subsequently invented, added, or altered on the computer. The very nature of audiovisual construction and reproduction is thereby put into question.
In other words, the whole issue of cinematic realism, so fervently debated on both sides for much of the twentieth century, loses its relevance in the age of workflow. It no longer makes sense to distinguish, as André Bazin did, between a self-subsistent reality that is indexically captured by the mechanistic recording apparatus of the cinema, and an “image,” defined as “everything that the depiction of a thing on the screen can add to the thing itself.”
Rather, the real itself is always in production — just as Deleuze and Guattari already intimated in the 1970s. Sonic and visual material is continually being worked and reworked: in the physical spaces before the camera and sound recorder, in these mechanisms’ own processes of capture and transmission, in the digital transformations accomplished through the computer, and in our own subjective acts of perception, reception, and synthesis. All of these are equally “real”: they are best thought of as particular stages in the never-ending adventure of materials. Thanks to the recent digital technologies epitomized by workflow, these diverse stages of actuality now interpenetrate one another more than ever before. This does not mean that Bazin has been discredited by the non-indexical nature of digital audiovisual capture. To the contrary, he is more in the right than he even knew: “the image may be out of focus, distorted, devoid of colour and without documentary value; nevertheless, it has been created out of the ontology of the model. It is the model.”
When I teach Introduction to Film (which I do every semester) much of my effort is spent explaining to students the basic formal structures of mise en scène, cinematography, and editing. These can be understood as, respectively, that which is presented before the camera, that which the camera itself does, and that which is subsequently assembled out of the material recorded by the camera. Mise en scène, cinematography, and editing are crucial categories for film studies, because they refer at once to operations performed in the course of making the film, and to formal aspects of the completed film as it is experienced by its audience.
Now, filmmakers have often played fast and loose with these categories, exploiting their ambiguities and loopholes. Long takes by Hitchcock and Welles, for instance, work to express through camera movement and framing alone what usually needs to be conveyed by means of editing. Godard’s calculated violations of continuity editing rules depend, for their effect, upon our unconscious expectations that these rules will be maintained. But if classical filmmaking established such basic formal categories, and modernist filmmaking troubled their boundaries, the most adventurous recent audiovisual production seems to dispense with them altogether. It is not just that there are new ways of putting together moving image sequences during post-production, but also that the resulting sequences look and sound differently than heretofore, and are organized by an entirely different logic. For instance, the rapid editing of many music videos, and of “chaos cinema” action sequences, bears a certain formal resemblance to 1920s Soviet montage; but the aesthetic aims of contemporary music video directors, no less than their technological means of production, are quite distant from those of Vertov and Eisenstein.
Contemporary music videos are quite strikingly different, not just from traditional cinema, but even from the “MTV-style” videos of the genre’s first decade, the 1980s. Carol Vernallis notes, for instance, how our experience of color in music videos, and of the textures of such diffuse substances as “dust, water, smoke, and clouds,” has been transformed by the use of DI (digital intermediate), a process that only came into common use after 2005 or so. Now that color and texture can be controlled and transformed on a pixel-by-pixel basis, Vernallis says, “each element is marked off so clearly it is almost as if we were examining the video’s detail through a magnifying glass.” Digital compositing already allows for image juxtapositions that are simultaneous, instead of (as in radical cinematic montage) sequential. But DI raises this multiplicity to a higher power, rendering for us something like the perception of machines, or of insect-style compound eyes. Vernallis adds that DI also allows video directors to do things like “cut quickly” from “an extreme wide-angle shot” to “an extreme closeup,” or “cut three or four fast shots around the face at well-judged off-angles” (here she refers in particular to the work of Jonas Åkerlund). These fast edits are generally “hard to see”; but they create a subliminal sense of “deeper immersion” for the viewer.
The new workflow aesthetics affects audiovisual production and reception alike; it works equally on the level of the “subject,” and on that of the “object.” On the one hand, it simulates and stimulates new modes of subjective perception; on the other, it produces new configurations of the objects being perceived.
I turn now to a music video that epitomizes the aesthetics of workflow. Anthony Mandler’s 2008 video for Rihanna’s song “Disturbia” is so densely layered and cluttered and compressed that it seems to require a whole new formal language to do it justice. The proliferation of images in the video definitely gives us a sense of what Chion calls “visual polyphony.” What is more, we do not see just “a single image at a time”; the video is literally polyphonic — or better, polyoptic — in that images are continually being layered transparently over one another. However, as befits the song, this “visual rhetoric” is oppressive rather than “joyous.” It suggests visual overload, more than promiscuous multiplication.
It would be impossible to do a conventional shot breakdown of this video; images proliferate and propagate in ways that do not conform to the traditional logic of cinematography and editing. At times, Rihanna’s face or figure detaches into two images, one of which jitters and shakes as if it were trying to break free from itself — or as if the camera itself were having some sort of seizure. There are also quick movements in and out of focus. Sometimes images are doubled by layering; usually a detail like Rihanna’s face in closeup is placed semi-transparently on top of a broader scene. The overall effect is at once unstable and claustrophobic.
At still other times, barbed wire and spider web patterns are splayed across Rihanna’s skin. The video’s images fade into one another as well as appearing on top of one another. There is also a lot of rapid cutting, without fades, not only between scenes that show the singer in different locales and wearing different costumes (as is common in music videos), but also among fragments of individual scenes or set-ups. Almost everything is presented frontally (as is also a common practice in music videos), but the way that the images are both fragmented and juxtaposed nonetheless disrupts any stable sense of perspective.
The video’s setting looks like a Victorian insane asylum. This impression is reinforced by the sound effects — dissonant arpeggios accompanied by creaking sounds — in the first thirty seconds of the video, before the song proper begins. My students found the video’s visual decor reminiscent of that in the computer game and movie series Silent Hill; but I think this is a matter, not of homage or direct imitation, but simply of the fact that both works draw upon the same Victorian-asylum imagery. In the video, in any case, Rihanna appears in numerous roles: she is both the director of the asylum, and a number of imprisoned patients.
In the former role, she is seated in an enormous rotating chair. She wears a sort of Victorian bondage wear, with black dress and knee-high boots, and long nails in black nail polish. She fans herself while turning in the chair, or walks about languidly and pats the head of a docile prisoner. Rihanna is also surrounded by strong, menacing figures. An enormous man with an eyepatch and a black-and-white striped prison uniform turns some large, creaky mechanical wheels; another large man, shirtless, beats out the song’s brutal rhythm on two enormous drums. While sitting in the chair, Rihanna is also assaulted by her own double: a feral female figure, on all fours, with wrists bound together and a punkish shock of blonde hair, who snarls and lunges at her, like a bad pet.
Meanwhile, Rihanna takes on multiple guises in her role as a patient-cum-prisoner in the asylum. She is caged in a jail cell, with straight blonde hair and empty zombie eyes. In other sequences, she pulls furiously upon chains that bind her ankles together and rivet her arms to a peg in the floor; or she jerks about violently while seemingly confined within an empty bedframe. Another sequence suggests slavery, as she stands chained to a pillar, with a collar around her neck, hands bound behind her back, and grease smeared on her naked shoulder. In the latter part of the video, we see her hanging immobilized in a corridor, her lower arms stuck inside the walls, and a tarantula on her upper arm, near her shoulder. We see also her splayed out, behind latticework, making love to a life-sized male mannequin; and in other shots, wearing what looks like an Indian headdress.
Most of these images are composed in dark tones, often approaching a monochrome dark blue. The darkness is only relieved by the highlighting of Rihanna’s face. Sometimes, however, there are horizontal bars of illumination or patches of color at the back of the set. In addition, the relatively dark images are continually interrupted by vertical streaks of light that seem to erupt out of the screen; or else by flames in the foreground, that ostentatiously do not fit into the same space as the rest of the image. One recurring sequence, however, is violently illuminated, in contrast to everything else in the video: the screen is bathed from above and behind in a glaring white and orange light. Rihanna’s prone body is held up into the light by a group of backlit dancers, perhaps suggesting a human sacrifice.
The song “Disturbia” is about mental anguish: the lyrics suggest paranoia, unbearable compulsion, and other such ugly feelings. “A disease of the mind,/ It can control you,” Rihanna sings, “I feel like a monster.” And again, in a line that seems to set forth the visual strategy of the video: “It’s like the darkness is the light.” I am inclined to give this line its full weight, as a statement of via negativa mysticism. The song is an affective expression, but it isn’t the representation of a mental state. For the very condition of feelings like these is that they cannot be represented, or brought into the light of full consciousness. Rihanna — or her persona in this song — suffers precisely from the absence, and the impossibility, of illumination. And this is the ironic situation that the song and video strive to “represent.”
It is worth noting that “Distubia” was co-written by Chris Brown, who passed it on to Rihanna after originally having planned to record it himself. Even though the song and video were released before the horrific incident in which Brown beat up Rihanna, it is hard not to regard “Disturbia” in the context of this subsequent history. The lyrics do not explicitly state any cause for the compulsion and paranoia that they express; but these symptoms can easily be interpreted as the effects of jealousy or a broken relationship. Robin James, writing specifically about Rihanna’s 2012 album Unapologetic, discusses the singer’s embrace of “melancholic damage,” and her absolute refusal of any narrative of recovery and resilience in the wake of the assault. I think that such a “damaged” and willfully unapologetic stance is already evident in “Disturbia,” both the song and the video.
“Disturbia” is undeniably a very catchy song, and it was a big dance hit when it was first released in 2008. The song was even described by one critic at the time (Alex Fletcher) as “a fun-packed electro treat filled with sizzling beats and crazy vocal effects.” Another critic (Fraser McAlpine), despite admiring “the spooky, gothy sounds in the first 30 seconds of the video,” and praising what he calls “Rihanna’s icy whine,” nonetheless complains that overall “Disturbia” is “FAR too chirpy a tune to suit the parade of Marilyn Manson fetish-wear and leathery bedlam which accompanies it” in the video.
Nonetheless, I think that the video responds to, and indeed brings out, disturbing undercurrents that already exist in the song. “Disturbia” is dominated by a harsh and pounding beat, which lacks the brightness and bounciness of similarly repetitive bass lines in electro tunes (such as that in “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” by Eiffel 65, which McAlpine compares to that of “Disturbia”). The harshness of the song’s rhythm is reinforced, not only by the “Bum bum be-dum bum bum be-dum bum” repeated refrain, but even more by the video’s choreography. Rihanna and her surrounding figures dance with spastic jerks of the head or of the whole body, emphasizing the beat’s relentless, inorganic regularity. There is no smooth or graceful movement here; everything is shaped by violent constraints.
This sort of dancing works in tandem with the twitching of the camera, the image juxtapositions, and the aggressive editing. All in all, Mandler’s metamorphosing images closely respond to the musical elements of the song: both its shifts of register and its propulsive force. But the hyperactive image track also leads us to notice different aspects of the sound than we might have done otherwise. In particular, it draws our attention to the song’s treatment of Rihanna’s voice, with its Autotune vocoder-like effects, and its surprising changes of vocal register. In short, we don’t hear the music of “Disturbia” in the same way when we watch the video, as we would without it.
The video for “Disturbia” uses the resources of workflow aesthetics in order both to track the song’s rhythmic intensities, and to follow the logic of the via negativa outlined by the song’s lyrics. In other words, the video “visualizes” an emotional state that is first presented acoustically, and that — strictly speaking — is not susceptible to visualization. The video assaults our senses with too thick an agglomeration of too many images. And yet these all tend to collapse into a black hole of negativity, or a night in which all cows are black. The ultimate effect of the video’s profusion is not psychedelic plenitude, but rather an amplification of darkness and obliqueness.
Rihanna clearly has a place in the genealogy of Afrofuturism. She is a robo-diva, as Robin James describes her, picking up on a term originally coined by Tom Breihan. James sees Rihanna’s self-robotization as a gesture of resistance: a way of refusing white patriarchy’s normative identification of itself with the human per se. In opposition to this, Stan Hawkins “perceive[s] Rihanna’s subjectivizing of the posthuman body as primarily nonemancipatory.” Actually, these positions are not necessarily in contradiction with one another, since the figure of the robot in Afrofuturism has long pointed in both directions at once: towards slavery, but also towards a “machine mythology” that rejects “the human” as “a pointless and treacherous category” of oppression (Kodwo Eshun).
But the technologies of workflow, as evidenced in the video for “Disturbia,” operate, I think, in something of a transversal register, in contrast to either of these directions. For what is at issue is not just “Rihanna’s subjectivizing of the posthuman body,” but also a correlative desubjectivizing of what it might mean to perceive her body. Workflow aesthetics, in both its production and its reception, operates on a fine microlevel. It allows for the most minute perceptual discriminations: one hue from another, one grain of sound from another, one pixel or one millisecond from another. These distinctions, like Leibniz’s petites perceptions, fall beneath the threshold of human recognition and voluntary action. We feel them, we are affected by them; but we cannot grasp them or comprehend them. In this way, an inhuman, machinic mode of experiencing is substituted for our own. Pop music is always about the most basic human emotions, at least as they are validated within our culture: love and sex, romance and rivalry, hatred and jealousy, ecstasy and pain. But insofar as the medium is the message, we are now experiencing even these conditions in ways that extend beyond and beneath our subjectivity.