Friday, June 24, 2011

Videos by Jake Barningham:

‘Pretty’ is the failure of interesting

I never intend any of these things (videos) to be relaxing experiences

All my images die. I think a good image should die…

VIDEO is the little brother who ends up killing himself.

Jake Barningham, quoted from conversation and email correspondence

“It is well-known that a standard video image lacks the sharpness and definition of even 8mm film. There are other, and in my view even more important, differences as well. In video, the range of darks and lights, the differences between the blackest black possible and the whitest white, is far narrower than in film. As a consequence, there are fewer intermediate shadings possible. Video colors lack the fullness and saturation of pure film colors; they are less intense. I am not speaking so much of the measurable purity of the light as of the fact that video green seems somehow less different from video red than a film green is from a film red. The video image is thus less differentiated in its internal structure than the film image. Similarly, far less of an illusion of depth is possible on video than in film… one senses the physical solidity of each object, but one also feels that the space between objects has the same palpable sensuality. A space is created, all pieces of which are in measurable and articulate relationships with each other. In video, this sense of physical space, of a felt distance between foreground and background, is largely lost.”

Fred Camper, The Trouble With Video

I quote Camper at length here for several reasons, not the least of which is that his negative description of video’s shortcomings as a medium are, in fact, appropriate estimations of the virtues of Jake Barningham’s video work (it should be noted, in the interest of full disclosure, that Barningham and Camper are on friendly speaking terms, and that I also know them both). Indeed, Camper’s assertions on the distinct virtues of various mediums, and the belief that within these distinctions lay the strengths of each medium, has been a formative influence on myself and Barningham. In point of fact, Barningham himself insists on the distinction, referring to himself as a video artist, not a filmmaker, and having no desire to work with film (to quote the artist: ‘I don't like handling film, I don't like shooting film, I don't like touching film cameras… its such a barbaric process, I've no idea how Brakhage made such beautiful poetry’.). What Barningham has managed to do is, simply put, more than akin to the poetry that Brakhage has imbued to celluloid. It is this critic’s opinion, whatever it may be worth, that Barningham is building a formidable body of work and quickly emerging at the forefront of this still new, not entirely understood, medium.

It can be difficult to speak of a diverse number of individual works that share a unifying sensibility while still diverging in their particulars. Nevertheless, Barningham’s videos strike me, first and foremost, as studies on absence. While none suggest a narrative, in each there is a hint of an image, something almost, barely tangible, that ultimately remains elusive and transient. It is interesting that the discernable images which do crop up, however fleetingly, are objects most associated with the human figure – a car in ‘#25’, houses cropped to the bottom of the frame in ‘and houses’, what appears to be an entire plot of land in ‘night, day’. Indeed, ‘color copy’ suggests an entry point into the other works – an almost recognizable image of a tree is bombarded by a flurry of pixels, each seemingly in a random, chaotic collision course with another. Yet these pixels almost ‘gather’ themselves, as if attracted to the image and attempting to ‘fill it’ in. But repeatedly, the pixels break down and scatter. While the image is partially defined by that which it is lacking – a specificity of sorts, Barningham also invites us to view the breakdown as something worthwhile in-and-of itself, as moments of pure movement, abstracted motion, the pixels themselves as unique sculptural objects. Camper is correct in suggesting a lack of articulated space/depth in video; Barningham’s works are interested not in spaces with which to insert oneself, but in building walls.

I’ve had the opportunity to speak with Barningham about his process, and while the technical specificity is above my head, the basics provide an interesting tension between chance operations and tightly controlled structure. The basis for each of the videos in the Onion City program is, in the beginning, images culled from web based weather cameras, usually unmanned and virtually anonymous, installed by amateur meteorologists. Interestingly, this anonymity is in itself a kind of absence (images without an author). Barningham then proceeds to edit chunks of footage as he sees fit, before putting the footage through a series of ‘save as’ iterations. By ‘saving’ the footage as a different video file at each iteration, various degrees of de-resolution creates layers of pixelation and color manipulation. This process lends itself to what I’m referring to as chance operation, although Barningham has enough practice with his process that he can anticipate, to some degree, what each iteration will look like. And, of course, if he is unhappy with the results, he can simply delete the file and start again.

It is this process of ‘breaking down’ that gives some of the videos an almost clinical feel; even when organic materials are visible, the viewer is aware of the artist’s hand at work, digging into the video (if such a thing is possible) to arrive at its smallest possible unit. ‘trees’ is a fascinating study, and along with ‘night, day’, the strongest video in a series of strong videos. While using natural light to film a forest might produce a stunning effect, it is the antithesis of what video does well – light on film is translucent and has an ‘emanating’ quality. Video absorbs, as Camper has pointed out, and Barningham’s study of the forest gives a lesson in this process – there is no grain, only blocks, with an undulating quality that layers rather than blends; versus the solidity of film, video could be described as ‘disintegrating’, on the verge constantly of not unraveling but dissipating, bit by bit, back to the ether. Certainly, there is a ghost-like quality to Barningham’s images, ‘echo transmissions’ to use Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s term.

Horizontal lines tend to turn up in each of the videos on display in this series, particularly in ‘#25’ and ‘and houses’, usually as pseudo-violent intrusions across the frame that also serve, not unlike the occasional ‘X’ title cards in Michael Snow’s La Region Central, to orient the viewer. But a consistent horizon line serves as the organizing factor in Barningham’s ‘night, day’, an almost straight-forward landscape film that might also be the best in the series. It’s certainly the longest (clocking in at a whopping 7 minutes). But the additional length allows Barningham to build a more complex rhythm, with segments serving as distinct movements. ‘night, day’ consists in part of time lapse photography that Barningham has edited so as to conflate his own chosen patterns with the unique, even bizarre lighting effects produced by the time-lapse; bursts of pixilated white merge into murky gray/blacks with remarkable fluidity, and the viewer is aware of the possibility of an almost-recognizable field of vision playing out before them. The bottom of the frame exists in constant tension with the horizon line, strange almost-color bars that threaten to rise up and engulf the image proper. Meanwhile, flickering white dots in a field of black explode into an approximation of daylight before quickly settling down, back into oblivion, only to then repeat the process. Barningham returns repeatedly to the image of a house, begging the question of what could possibly be transpiring in this constantly morphing landscape (which again suggests an absence, i.e. who exists within this home?).
By my estimation, the second movement begins with the introduction of rain drops onto the camera lens. The attentive viewer can ascertain what is physically causing this effect, but formally speaking, the rain drops occur without warning as large physical objects invading the frame. They clump in an interesting way, again suggesting the tension between chance (random footage) and control (the artist chose this footage of these objects). This section moves along for a couple of minutes, building to a crescendo of rapid cutting that stuns the eye – if we’ve been lulled by the preceding pace, Barningham jars our attention.
The third movement seems to begin with the introduction of a new formal element, an architectural structure that intersects the frame and the horizon line, totally disrupting the field of vision that we’ve become accustomed to in the previous five minutes or so. Barningham repeats the structure, while maintaining the already established night-day-night rhythm, as well as briefly re-introducing, if only for a moment, the rain drops on the lens motif. The effect is of a cumulative ‘building-up’; one senses that Barningham could keep adding layers indefinitely, while simultaneously defamiliarizing and deconstructing the image. The complexity of ‘night, day’ exists in this dichotomy between simplification (the pixel) and maximizing (the infinite number of shapes one could introduce to this landscape).

If video could be called film’s ‘baby brother’, as Barningham has self-deprecatingly joked, it is through the efforts of artists like himself that the medium will assert itself as a peer, capable of its own unique poetry. Go see this work.

Saturday, June 25th
7pm – Chicago Filmmakers
Shorts Program 3
#25 (2011, 2 min)
western (2011, 3 min)
night, day (2011, 7 min)
trees (2011, 2 min)
and houses (2011, 3 min)
color copy (2011, 3 min)

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