Digital audiovision

Yet another paper proposal. I wish it were as easy to write the actual papers as it is to propose topics.


In this essay, I would like to look at the differences in the articulation of sound and image in audiovisual media, that have resulted from the digital technologies of the last twenty years or so. On a basic ontological level, digital video consists in multiple inputs, all of which, regardless of source, have been translated into, and stored in the form of, binary code. This means that the most heterogeneous sources are all treated in the same way. There is no fundamental difference, on the binary level, between transcoded visual images, and transcoded sounds. This means that moving-image media can no longer be understood in terms of a (Godardian, or indeed Eisensteinian) dialectic between sound and image. Rather, digitized sound sources and digitized image sources now constitute a plurality without intrinsic hierarchy, that can be articulated in various ways. The mixing or compositing of multiple image and sound sources may arouse new sensory modalities (synesthetic, intermodal, etc.), and may exhibit different sorts of rhythmic organization than was the case with previous sound cinema.

I think that looking at digital audiovisual media in this way can shed new light on the current transition away from analog cinema. A number of prominent film critics (including David Rodowick, Vivian Sobchak, and Laura Mulvey) have mourned this transition, suggesting that something fundamental has been lost in the process of digitization. Rodowick, for instance, criticizes digital audiovisual media for lacking both the Bazinian indexicality, and the sense of temporal duration, that were crucial to the experience of analog cinema. But I consider it symptomatic that Rodowick almost entirely discusses the image, and has almost nothing to say about sound. A reflection on sound as well as image, and on the softening of the opposition between them, can lead to a very different take on the powers and potentials, as well as the defects, of new digital media.

My investigation will also have consequences for the historical typology of film offered by Gilles Deleuze in his two Cinema volumes. Deleuze distinguishes between the “movement-image” of classical film, and the “time-image” of modernist film. The former measures time indirectly, as a factor in action and in narrative. The latter fractures both linear and cyclical notions of time, in order to present us with sheer duration, or “time in its pure state.” Deleuze crucially insists that the “image” to which he refers is a “sound image,” as well as a “visual image.” Nonetheless, it is unclear to what extent his analyses of the “time-image” in the second half of the twentieth century can still be applied to the audiovisual forms now emerging in the twenty-first. I want to consider how these newer forms rework temporal relations, so as to provide us with a third sort of Deleuzian image, irreducible either to the movement-image or to the time-image.

Everything that I have discussed so far is rooted in the ontology of audiovisual media. But it should not be assumed that ontological differences automatically translate into corresponding differences in the perceptual and affective experience of the audience. Digital technologies process images and sounds in different ways from how analog technologies did; but they also provide different sorts of experiences to their audiences or “endusers.” Digital audiovisual works can be accessed in different ways; they can appear on different sorts of screens and audio devices, with varying degrees of sound and image resolution; and they allow different sorts of audience response, including a greater degree of interaction or intervention. All these factors play a role in how audiovisual works address the human sensorium, and in how they mobilize our feelings.

In order to address these issues, I will look primarily at music videos of the last decade, and secondarily at recent films that embrace something of a music-video aesthetic, opening up new articulations of vision and sound.

8 thoughts on “Digital audiovision”

  1. I’m not entirely convinced by the argument that the materials of analog film authorized the notion of a dialectical opposition between sound and image. Didn’t optical soundtracks transcribe the sound as image?

    It seems like your paper topic provides us with an opportunity to re-think theories of sound/image opposition in analog film as well.

  2. Do you have any particular films or music videos in mind? Perhaps this would be a wonderful opportunity to explore some of the exquisite television commercials by Wong Kar Wai? Good Luck with the paper – really enjoyed the singularity piece.

  3. I’m interested to hear more about this ‘third image’ stemming from Deleuze’s Movement-/Time-Images. It sounds to me as if it would be different from the Hybrid-Image that folks have been talking about differently, but what direction would you take the discussion? It seems that, if the above arguments are true, the Digital-Image would be fundamentally different in how it reacts to images and sounds, or at least in how it takes its place amongst these other ‘images.’

  4. perhaps deleuze himself already presaged this discussion with his preface to the american edition of cinema two when he elusively posits a cinema of ozu?

  5. I think the notion of “cinema” rel. to “audio” is a bit antiquated. your point of them being equal on the plane of computability is good, however, looking at music videos is not where to find it.

    I put together the 2003 San Francisco Performance Cinema Symposium and there was a lot of discussion of direct equality there, where the role of the VJ became front and centre. This is good in that there is a need for someone to do something, but it was unfortunate for the idea of Performance (or live) cinema as most work by most VJs is simply awful, and little more than a light show.

    In my opinion, and I stated it then, the whole thing spins on the question of narrativity. Insofar as live cinema or cinematic music or what-ever-it-is-called-this-week, is concerned is that it devolves to several major and presently unresolved questions:

    1. the role of the narrative and narrativity (and relatedly, storytelling)
    2. the variable centrality of the video performer
    3. the cathectic loop of audient/performer
    4. audience education

    1. much live cinema takes inspiration from avant garde film, which had a noted disregard for narrative structure and narrativity in general, and stroytelling was seen as quaint and pointless. This is aided by the structure of live cinema/VJ applications, where immediate and rapid shifts between video clips is easily accomplished, and is central to the working of the VJ software.

    VJ software, in this respect, treats the video clip much as an audio sampler treats an audio clip: as something unto itself and subject to processing systems. similar to an audio clip, where audio clip can be run through ADSR envelope (causing it to fade in and fade out, or abruptly fade in or fade our, or peak and fade or some combination there of) video clips can be similarly processed, and using an assortment of gear, be done in real time. Material aspects of the video signal can be so treated / distorted.

    Unfortunately, this leads to a problem of gratuitous processing, and when combined with a lack of narrativity or storytelling, the work often decomposes into “eye candy”. This is made more problematic by artists who think eye candy is a good thing…

    This all rides on the eisenstein theory of montage, and has been used as a reason/excuse for this kind of work, where the assumption is any few video clips in sequence create a narrative. This, when practiced en masse, fails and collapses under the weight of its own meaninglessness.

    2. the performer is of a variable centrality: sometimes the video performer is front and center, like a musician, but more often, off to the side or in “an orchestra pit” like situation, so as not to distract from the visual experience for the audient. Sometimes, the video can be set on “auto pilot” and software can engage in clip management, or, images are simply processed offline, in which case, the work is more like an elaborate cinema experience. If the performer is on stage and is a part of the performance as a visual stage element, then point 3 comes to the fore:

    3. the cathectic loop between audient and performer. Whenever people are involved in a direct situation, there is a degree of psychic investment by both parties into each other. This can be very good, as the performer “reads” the audience, and is able to adjust the performance given the charge from the audience and the context of the performance. This can be very bad, as this takes a lot of experience and skill to do well, and if the work is typical (non-narrative eye candy) the audience’s attention will vary and shift and the loop breaks down.

    4. and the final nail in the coffin is the lack of audience education. This is historical, as there is a great deal of inertia from traditional light shows of rock concerts. A grand example of this could be seen in the 1975 tour by Genesis for the LP “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway”. And since I’m in a simulative mood, here’s a link to a video of a band called “The Musical Box” who recreate Genesis concerts, using the original films, slides, stage sets, constumes directly from Genesis, and period instruments to recreate the sound.

    (side note: I’ve seen “Musical Box” and I’ve seen Genesis with Peter Gabriel – I’m old – and I can assure you the simulation they provide is preternatural…)

    As you can see in the clip, (this is of the opening number which sets the story line) the slides are used to illustrate the lyrical content of the songs. This kind of “back-seating” of the visual was and is still typical, where the musician “headlines” but the video/visual artist is rarely even acknowledged (again, referring to unresolved centrality issues of the video artist rel. to the musician.)

    This piece is typical. In music videos, the video artist got more notice, but when music videos were no longer economically viable due to the collapse of the musical industry’s empire of theft form artists, at the hands of theft from the audience, music videos have been largely abandoned and no longer have the same budgets.

    In the process, some extra-ordinary work has been generated, and continues to be made. Chris Cunningham a great case in point. At the peak, in the early 90s, other brilliant music videos were made – such as “Are we still married” by His Name Is Alive and the film by Brothers Quay, here:

    is a good example, and I am sure Steven has jillions more to point at.

    Unfortunately, the equalisation of video and audio, where they meet as equals, is not in music video, but more in live cinema. Unfortunately, the practitioners of live cinema come from a visual tradition that isn’t optimal for broad understanding, which loops us back to audience education…

    These are just some notes and ramblings – not a coherent treatise on the subject. I think it is something well worth digging into. (Un)Fortunately, I have vastly larger fish to fry right now….



  6. What is the proposed output for this? I look forward to reading more. I’m addressing some related concerns for my paper in Koln.

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