The Future of the Moving Image

All dissimilar technologies are the same in their own way, but all similar technologies are uniquely different. This was probably at the core of the zeitgeist at the international seminar on “The Future of Celluloid” hosted by the Media Lab at the Jadavpur University, Kolkata, at which Nishant Shah, Director - Research CIS, presented a research paper. Practitioners, film makers, artists, theoreticians and academics, blurring the boundaries of both their roles and their disciplines and areas of interest, came together to move beyond convergence theories – to explore the continuities, conflations, contestations and confusions that Internet Technologies have led to for earlier technologies, but specifically for the technology of the moving image.

 How Digital Cinema changes the notion of authorship...

The concerns that emerged at the Jadavpur University Media Lab's international seminar on The Future of Celluloid, were manifold and not confined to cinema or the moving image. These are concerns that are voiced on all realms of cultural production, where the traditional forms feel stranded at digital intersections, threatened by the emergence of new cultural productions which are so much more quintessentially the form and ideal that the traditional forms aspired to.

The blog, as we saw at the “Writing the Future Conference” was seen as a threat and more fundamentally replacing the novel form.  Ars electronica or digital music has long since played the swan song of traditional orchestration practices. Similarly, the digital film (often broadcast on video sharing spaces like YouTube and MySpace) or even mainstream feature films that embody digital technologies of hypervisualisation, show necessarily more than celluloid could ever capture. As Ashish Rajadhyaksha pointed out, “The capacity to pay almost infinite attention to the celluloid image was made possible only with the digitisation of the celluloid image”.

Through the different presentations, this strain of thought was apparent – will we lose celluloid altogether? Is the future of cinema going to be in infantile pre-lapsarian representations of smiling/dancing/gurgling babies and furry pets made by indulgent mothers and doting pet owners? When cinema transitions from deep celluloid to shallow pixels, will the loss in depth also result in the death of meaning and processes of reading the image?  And finally, the question that seems to surface, sometimes in the guise of academic concern, sometimes in the shape of alarm and anxiety, and sometimes in the form of paranoia and raging uncertainty: “Is this the end of Celluloid? “ to which Matt Hanson, who presented his open source film A Swarm of Angels,  nuancedly added: "Only the end of celluloid as we know it!”

In my presentation titled ´Of Pranksters, Jesters and Clowns – YouTube Videos and Conditions of Collaborative Authorship´ I made a call to identify these questions as symptomatic of another more deep seated anxiety  which makes for a fundamental revisiting of the relationship between the author, the text and the reader. Looking particularly at YouTube videos and the kind of arguments that have surrounded them – on copyright, defamation, plagiarism, piracy, sampling, remix, authorship, ownership – I proposed that at the centre of all these anxieties is the question of authorship, what constitutes it and the need to expand the scope of authorship by looking at the series of engagements that happen online.

 I presented two cases to make my argument. The first was the case of 13-month-old Holden Lenz, dancing to Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy.  In February 2007, Stephanie Lenz’s family had a digital equivalent of a Kodak moment. Her 13-month-old son Holden, pushing a walker across her kitchen floor, started moving to the addictive rhythms of Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy  song  and Stephanie recorded him on her digicam. Wanting more of the family to share the joy, she uploaded the video on to YouTube and it was viewed scores of times. Laughs were shared, gaps were bridged, digital technologies brought families scattered across time-zones and lifestyles together.

However, the lawyers at Universal Music did not seem to share the enthusiasm or the joy. They fired off a notice to YouTube asking them to remove the video because it amounted to a copyright infringement. YouTube, fearing legal ramifications, removed the video. Stephanie Lenz approached the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which challenged Universal’s claims that held Lenz liable for up to 150,000 USD in fines for sharing the 29 seconds of her son dancing. While it is very easy to draw the battle-lines and look upon the well educated, highly paid lawyers of Universal as ‘idiots’ who spent probably millions of dollars in starting the legal battle, I think there is more at play here than who is right and who is wrong. What is really being debated, is not whether Lenz indulged in wilful copyright infringement or not, but the questions of who is an author, what are the mechanisms of attribution, and how do we understand these in the complex digital worlds that we populate?

Historically, the author was constructed as a communitarian figure whose work depended on and was enhanced by the collaborations and the collective knowledge of the people s/he interacted with. Chaucer, to quote the most canonical example, for instance, was recognised as the author of The Canterbury Tales only after the print industry finds its footing, thus neglecting the fact that the text was heavily distorted, enhanced, mutated, corrected, revised, edited and transformed by the various users of the manuscripts, who were not merely audience or receptors but also collaborative authors of the text. It is only with the establishment of the cultural industries, that such a fluid understanding of authorship gets crystalised into specific forms of engagement, where the author, the reader, the distributor, the consumer, the audience and the end user are all clearly defined and contained within presumed roles.

It is the blurring of these boundaries in the digital world that leads to the kind of debates that we observe around the Stephanie Lenz case. The inability of the newly emerging digital cultural industry to recognise different forms of engagement – remixing, sampling, embedding, referencing, distributing, editing, etc. – as creative and productive forms of authorship is at the basis of the anxieties that run amok in these debates. My presentation made a call for not only a de-criminalisation of pirate positions in the realm of cultural production, but also to recognise and celebrate the various conditions of collaborative authorship – be it by Holden Lenz who probably made the song twice as popular than it was, or by Avril Lavigne fans who went on a spree to make her song Girlfriend,  the first video to be viewed one million times on Youtube – not merely as derivative or acts of prank and jests, but as legitimate and distinctive forms of authorship which expand the scope of the cultural object and give it unprecedented layers of meaning and engagement.

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Author

Nishant Shah

Dr. Nishant Shah is the co-founder and board member of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, and is a professor at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at Leuphana University in Germany, and is Dean of Research at ArtEZ Graduate School, the Netherlands.