Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Of slow motion and modern perception

This blog is still officially on hiatus (for more current updates continue to check my PIA blog), but I had a thought I wanted to put down here, and damn the torpedoes if I can't write here when I want.

Anyway, to get to the point: I've been seeing commercials for this new show called Time Warp on the Discovery Channel. And basically the conceit is, "Let's film cool stuff happening with high speed cameras and then show it in super slow motion." That's it.

It's a simple, beautiful concept. In essence, it's no different from the animal locomotion studies of Eadweard Muybridge, except jacked up to accommodate modern modes of perception. On their forums for suggesting new projects, people still ask for slow motion shots of racehorses. It's like they were watching mythbusters, and trying to figure out what made it successful (besides the engaging hosts and frequent use of high explosives), and realized the following deep truth about humans:

It is fascinating to observe phenomena that exist beyond normal human vision.

...slow motion not only presents familiar qualities of movement but reveals in them entirely unknown ones “which, far from looking like retarded rapid movements, give the effect of singularly gliding, floating, supernatural motions.” Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye – if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man. Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person’s posture during the fractional second of a stride.
--Walter Benjamin

[It should be mentioned that this not only works for slowing things down, but the converse as well. Even though speeding up a process has become commonplace with time-lapse photography, we are still delighted to see the results a man photographing himself daily for six years.]
...in photography, process reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens, which is adjustable and chooses its angle at will. And photographic reproduction, with the aid of certain processes, such as enlargement or slow motion, can capture images which escape natural vision.
--Walter Benjamin

Perhaps the high-speed photography we see on Mythbusters or Time Warp is the sensory equivalent of early cinema in its day. The fallibility of human perception has been a common theme at least since the development of crime scene forensics (not to mention the discovery of radioactivity) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and human vision has been in epistemic doubt since the discoveries of Galileo and Leeuwenhoek. Since then, we've been looking to science and technology to help us "see" what cannot be seen and perceive what cannot be percieved. This issue of human perception in modernity, typified first by time lapse photography and slow motion shots of important events, and now by things like machine vision, video analytics, and of course, Bullet Time, seeps through the way we look at things in a way that would baffle humans living only 15 years ago.

[In a related but outlying collorary, the increasing complexity of American football over the past 30-40 years is in no small part the result of video analysis of the opponent's past games to detect tendencies in offensive and defensive schemes. This is translated to the lay watcher as "Instant Replay," which incidentally featured Bullet Time-like effects in Super Bowl XXXV. As a member of a college football team for 4 years (including one spent as a video assistant when I tore up my knee), I can attest to the positional meeting as a far-flung outpost of audio-visual close reading. As a side note, I would urge any budding media theoretician interested in screening or studying VHS in its twilight to call up local high school football coaches and see if they have a VCR and/or "cowboy remote" they're looking to get rid of.
The advent of digital film and databasing will only add to the complexity. I expect at some point-- and this may have already happened in elite programs-- gameplanning will be first and foremost a careful balancing act between preparing your players to exploit the other team's tendencies and making sure you don't cause cognitive overload.]

That's leading me to wonder whether a number of artistic developments of the 20th century (especially in film, the 20th century artform par excellence) aren't related to and influenced by this problem of perception. Right now though, I'm trying to untangle the knot of what's related to perception, what's related to attention, and what's both. I'd appreciate any comments pointing me to theoretical works on this.

So anyway, in the 60s avant-garde there's an oppositional approach towards time-manipulation, evidenced in the creation of 'boring' film that tries to tweak your impatience for action. Warhol's long takes, for example, can be read as a reaction against the economy of attention that requires you to speed things up or slow big action down in order for them to be interesting. No, you don't get to see something fascinating collapsed or expanded into a 90 seccond snippet suitable for youtubing. Instead, you get to see the Empire State building, in real time, for eight hours and five minutes. Happy now?

Also, I'm not familiar enough with Robert Wilson's work to say anything definite, but I'd guess from what I have read and seen to say that the extremely slow, deliberate movement he uses in productions is probably akin to "Time Warp" in how it slows down movement and action to a level people are able to really process, though it has an entirely different economy of interest. which might make people think that it's more like Giant. But if they do that, they're missing the difference between film and theater.
Time moves much slower in his pieces. Everything appears to be moving in slow motion, but really it's just giving you longer to register the theatrical information, so that you can really be inside the theater and experience it. If you don't change time in some way, it's not theater. It's real.

--Tom Waits on Robert Wilson

That's enough for now. There's a lot here that needs a rehashing or two, but I'd appreciate advice and comments. Maybe next time I'll talk about "Destroyed In Seconds" and how it's related to Paul Virilio.

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