A War between Narration and Image: Digital Image Art by Swiss Artist Beat Kuert By Wu Hong

A War between Narration and Image: Digital Image Art by Swiss Artist Beat Kuert
By Wu Hong, Beijing November 2010

The works of Beat Kuert can not be easily demarcated by a specific art type. In his art, various elements are fused into an organic whole, hard to be dissected in an analytical way. His rich art experiences contribute much to this fact.
In the stage when film was first born, or the age of the Lumière, the camera lens imitated human eyes to observe the world. A bit curiously and timidly, it watched the outside world. So is this “world” observed from the camera different from the one that we see with our eyes? The answer is obvious, for otherwise mankind wouldn’t have been so fascinated by what’s shown on the screen. But what on earth is this “difference”? It’s the characteristic of “narration” reflected on the screen. Although the shooting process of the early camera operator was disordered and subconscious, with the intrinsic logic of images being revealed when they flicker on the screen, human beings’ potential for “narration” was demonstrated. Such potential comes from man’s childhood experience, when a child acquires the most basic ability of describing images, he can use this ability to describe a narrative “plot” to you, maybe from his own experience, or perhaps just a fantasy. In short, the moment when the image came into being, the possibility of linking what happened “before” and “after” it in time and space had come into existence: centering around “Dasein (existence)”, the linear logic connecting what’s past and after it in time, this is what’s called “narration”.
The “motion pictures” brought about by the Lumière camera or Edison camera further strengthened image’s function of narration. By this time, what the audience experienced had become the will of “the man behind the camera” and his narrative logic. The great willpower embodied by such “narrative logic” even surmounted the role of a traditional playwright or director, for in a traditional play the will of the playwright or director has to be displayed through the actor’s performance. Furthermore, even the same actor’s actual performance may vary in different showings of the play, while “the man behind the camera” can accomplish the dissolution and reorganization of the “linear logic” of time, via free processing of images. The actor’s performance, being recorded on the films and turned into “solidified image”, is now but a trivial element in the process of dissolution and reorganization. Now we can roughly learn the difference between a “play director” and a “movie director”, their different characteristics revealed in the linear logic of time. In a play, though there are techniques of breaking time’s linear logic such as flashback and interspersed flashback, the director cannot break the actor’s linear process in live performance, while in a movie, time and space are decomposed into frames, the unit of film. A specific frame of “film unit” is subordinate to a bigger “narrative unit” in the process of narration. Meanwhile, it also demonstrates an independent value, which will be cited again in the following discussion.
As stated above, because of its narrative potential, when commercialized, early movies inevitably adopted the play’s traditional technique of narrative logic in its development,for repeated “motion pictures” are boring, while a well-knit narration is attractive. Meanwhile, over-dramatizing also confined film’s self-support as an independent art type. Thus in the first three decades of last century, quite a few independent artists in New York and Paris were engaged in an experiment that was later called “avant-garde film”. The production of avant-garde films was based on the greater background of Modern Movement of fine arts. In this background, the visual “modeling element” was no longer subordinate to the need of narration or modeling. Claiming independence, the “modeling element” sought its own value of existence in two aspects: color and shape. Pursuant to this logic, modern arts kept developing from Impressionism, Post-Impressionism to abstractionism. In the cultural logic of “abstractionism”, “shape” and “color” no longer serve the need of modeling, but directly serve the psychological and spiritual logic on a higher level. Born in such an abstractionist cultural background, the extremity of avant-garde film is self-evident. In the form of avant-garde film, narration and plot are totally abandoned, and what’s expressed through the “motion” of images is a rhythm in step with man’s spiritual and psychological aspects. Here, we might as well regard it as an abstract painting “in motion”.
Though avant-garde film in this period was produced in an individual and independent way, its high cost and alternative aesthetic taste made it impossible to promote its development via the law of commercial investment and returns, or further make it an independent art form.
It was only after the rise of analog production devices and play devices, and also the rise of three-in-one “videos” with the function of video camera, player and television, that “video art” could possibly exist as an independent art form. But again, the expensive post-production devices forced many independent artists to turn to professional institutes or personnel to finish their artwork. Furthermore, the possibility of image processing is rather limited on an analog video device. So during this period, “video art” that can truly distinguish itself from early films or avant-garde films in the sense of “image” is quite rare. What’s more common is the combination of a video play device and an installation, which turns out to become a subcategory of art form: “video installation art”.  In this art form, the relationship of time and space “within” images got strengthened, abstracted or extended in an installation in a wider space range.
With the arrival of digital era, the process of post-production can be done on personal computers, so that the complete production process can be truly “personalized”. At the same time, digitalization also enables an artist to process graphics with software programs. It was such a background that made the “digital image art” distinct from the film age and video age possible.
As stated above, in a traditional play, the meaning unit of narration is “show”, the concept of coherent performance, while in a film, the meaning unit of narration is “footage”, the concept of coherent shooting with a camera, and it is the film frame that embodies the meaning of image. Instead, in the digital image, it’s the pixel dot that embodies the meaning of image. This evolution from “show” to “frame” to “pixel” reflects not only the progress in technology, but also a possibility for “image” to be separated from narration and become independent.
What’s said above is exactly the complete process of Beat Kuert’s art experiences.

He started with early avant-garde films, later got involved in shooting and directing commercial films and TV documentaries. Eventually, with the arrival of digital age, he gave up his previous occupation with commercial imaging and dived into the creation of digital image art. Thanks to the richness of his work experience, we can see both diversity and compromise in his works.

Beat Kuert mixed in his works varied “performance” elements such as performance art, narrative performance and chance performance, combining a variety of image processing approaches brought by digital image processing technology. The “narrative” meaning embodied by performance and the “image” meaning embodied by digital image processing constitute two most basic axes of his work. Parallel or intersectant, the relation between the two axes forms the rich and varied visual effect of his work.

As said above, “footage” or “frame” is subordinate to the need of narration as far as a commercial or traditional film director is concerned, while in the hands of an avant-garde film artist, it becomes the tool for deconstructing and overturning linear narrative logic. As for digital image artists, digitalized pixel dots become the element for dissolving, remodeling and reorganizing images.

So in Beat Kuert’s digital image artworks, we can see narrative “performance”, montage “footage” editing, and the dissolution and rebirth of “image” in the sense of pixel dots, the three of which form a progressive relationship. During this process, the narrative logic produced by performance in the first place keeps being overturned and deconstructed by footages and pixel dots, like a “war” for meaning, fighting for the right of interpretation.

Some critics are keen on talking about Beat Kuert’s metaphorical symbolism revealed via actresses’ performance and their use of props. They are actually falling into his preset trap of “meaning”. When these critics focus on the performing process of the actors, the subject of shooting, they forget that Beat Kuert’s intention in employing footage and digital image processing is not to visually “beautify” the subject. On the contrary, as an independent element, they play an indispensable role in constituting the final meaning of the work. Returning to the old question: Is what we see real? This issue is no longer nouveau in philosophical discussion, yet still has great values when expressed in a way with abundant visual experience. That’s why Beat Kuert’s works also possess an ultimate philosophical value while satisfying our visual sense.

Now let’s move on to his two-dimensional photography works, which are either selected from motion pictures or taken in a “motion picture” way, so the above-stated viewpoints also apply to the interpretation of his pictures.

Our belief in the essential meaning of this world is based on a transcendentalist “narrative” logic. The “physical world” that can be observed constitutes the narrative element, “image” is a persistence of vision of the physical world, and “pixel” the basic component of image, and finally, it’s “us” who gain control of the form of pixels. In this circulating process of logic, these concepts rely on one another, meanwhile deconstruct one another. They define, and at the same time blur the dividing line between the knowable and unknowable in the world that we live in, or maybe even “us” is a subject unknowable.

(Trans. from the original Chinese text)




在 电影刚诞生的阶段,也就是在卢米埃尔时期,电影摄影机的镜头是模仿人的眼睛来观察世界的。它带着一点新奇而惶恐不安的心情,在观察着面前的世界,而这个从 摄影机的镜头中所观察到的“世 界”与我们用肉眼所看到的世界之间到底有什么不同吗?答案是显而易见的,否则人类不会对银幕上的图像乐此不疲。那么,这种“不同”到底是什么呢?这就是在 银幕上所体现出来的“叙事”的特征。虽然,在最初的摄影机的掌控者而言,他的拍摄过程是无序而下意识的,但是,通过在银幕快速闪动过的图像之间所体现出来 的内在的逻辑,它所表现出来的人类的“叙述故事”的潜质。这种潜质来自于人类的童年经验,当一个儿童在他掌握了一些最基本的形象描绘能力之后,他便能够使 用这种能力来向你描述一个带有叙事性的“情节”,或许这个情节是来自于他的经历,或许是一种幻想。总之,图形在它诞生的那个片刻中,就已经有了将它“之 前”和“之后”的时空中所发生的事情联系起来的可能了:以“此在”为中心,联系起它之前和之后的时间线性逻辑,这便是“叙事”。

卢米埃尔 式的和爱迪生式的电影摄影机所带来的“活 动影像”,使这种图形的叙事功能进一步加强。这个时候,观众所能体验到的是在摄影机“背后的那个人”的叙事逻辑意志。这种“叙事逻辑”所体现出来的强大意 志甚至超过了传统的戏剧编剧和导演的作用。因为,在传统戏剧中,编剧和导演的意志必须要通过演员的现场表演来具体体现出来。而且,即使在同一个演员在他的 每一场不同的表演中所体现出来的临场感性也是不一样的。而在摄影机“背后的那个人”,他可以自如地通过对影像的自如处理来实现时间的“线性逻辑”的拆解和 重组。演员的表演在经过胶片的记录之后所体现的“固化的影像”,此时只不过是在这种拆解和重组过程中的零散元素而已。至此,我们大概能大致知道一个“戏剧 导演”和一个“电影导演”之间,在时间的线性逻辑性上所体现出来的不同特征了。因为,即使在戏剧表现的过程也有倒叙和插叙这种打破时间线性逻辑的做法,但 是,导演无法打破演员在现场表演过程中所体现出来的线程性过程。而在电影导演那里,时空被分解成了每一帧的胶片单元。特定的某一帧的“胶片单元”既在叙事 过程中从属于一个比较大的“叙事单元”,同时它也表现出一种独立的价值。这一点,在稍后的论述中还会被再次引证。

如上所述,正因为早期电 影所具备的叙事潜质,所以,在它被商业化之后,不可避免地在它发展的过程中引用了传统戏剧的叙事逻辑手法。因为,反复重复着的“活 动影像”的会令人厌烦的,而一个精心编织起来的戏剧叙事过程则是吸引人的。而与此同时,过分的戏剧化也束缚了电影作为一种独立艺术样式的自立。所以,在上 个世纪最初的三十年中,在巴黎和纽约有不少独立艺术家也在从事着一种在后来被称之为“先锋电影”的实验。先锋电影的产生是依附于现代主义美术运动大背景 的,在这个背景下,视觉的“造型元素”不再从属于叙事或者造型的需要了。独立出来的“造型元素”在形状和颜色两个方面谋求着自己独立存在的价值。依循着这 个逻辑,现代主义艺术一路从印象派、后期印象派,发展至抽象主义。在“抽象主义”的文化逻辑下,“形状”和“色彩”已经不再需要为塑造形体服务了,它们在 更高的层面上直接为心理逻辑和精神逻辑服务了。那么,在这种抽象主义文化背景下所产生的先锋电影,它所表现出来的极端性是不言而喻的。在先锋电影的形态 中,彻底抛弃了叙事和故事情节,通过形象的“运动”,表现出来的是一种与人的精神、心理层面相吻合的韵律。在这里,我们不妨将之视为“活动”的抽象主义绘 画。


使 用模拟信号的摄录、播放设备出现之后,以录像摄录机、录像播放机及电视为三位一体的“录 像”形式出现之后,才有可能产生了作为一种独立艺术形式的“录像艺术”。但是,仍然是因为后期编辑设备的昂贵,使很多作为独立艺术家的个人只能借助于专业 机构或专业人员的帮助,才能最终完成自己的艺术作品。而且,在模拟信号的设备上,影像处理的可能性非常有限,所以,在这个时期中,真正能在“影像”的意义 上有别于早期电影或先锋电影的“录像艺术”并不多见。而较为多见的是录像的播放设备与装置相结合,形成了一种作为子分类的“录像装置艺术”形式。在这个艺 术形式中,影像“内部”的时间和空间关系通过在更大空间范围的装置体中得以强化、抽离,或者延伸。


如 前所述,在传统戏剧中,叙事的意义单元是一个表演连贯的“场” 的概念;而在电影中,叙事的意义单元则是摄影机拍摄连贯的“镜头”的概念,而体现镜头的图像意义的则是每一帧胶片格;而在数字影像中,体现图像意义的则是 每一个像素点。这种从“场”到“帧”,再到“点”的变化,所体现的不仅仅是技术的进步,同时,也体现出了“图像”从叙事中分离、独立出来的一种可能。


他 从早期的胶片式的先锋电影开始起步,后来也介入商业电影和电视专题片的摄影和导演。最后,在数字时代来临之后,他放弃了此前的商业影像职业,全心身投入到 数字影像艺术的创作中。正因为他如此丰富的职业经历,所以在他的作品中,我们既可以看到其中的杂多性,同时也可以看到某种妥协性。

在彼特· 库尔特的作品,他结合了行为艺术表演、叙事性表演、偶发性表演等等的“表演”元素,以及由数字图形处理技术而带来的多样化的图像处理方式。那么,这种由表 演所体现出来的“叙事”意义与由数字图形处理方式所体现的“图像”意义,构成了他的作品中的两个最根本的基轴。这两个基轴的或并行或交叉的关系,形成了他 的作品中丰富多样的视觉形式。


所 以,在彼特· 库尔特的数字影像艺术作品中,我们可以看到由叙事性的“表演”、蒙太奇意义上的“镜头”剪辑,以及由像素点意义上的“图像”的分离和再生,这三者形成了一 种递进层级关系。在这个过程中,最初由表演所产生出来的叙事逻辑关系不断被镜头和像素点来颠覆和解构,在他的作品中,犹如一场争夺解释权的意义“战争”。

在 一些评论者的阐述中,他们津津乐道于彼特· 库尔特在通过演员的表演,以及她们对于道具的运用,所带来的某种寓意的象征,而这些,恰恰走入了他预设的“意义”圈套。这些评论者将着眼点放在作为被拍摄 对象的演员的表演过程中的时候,他们忘了,彼特·库尔特的镜头应用和数字化的图形处理,并不是要起到在视觉上对被拍摄对象的“美化”的目的。而与之相反, 它们作为独立的作品元素在作品最终的意义建构上,起到了不可或缺的作用。问题再回到老路上:“我们看到的对象是真实的吗?”,这个命题从哲学上探讨已经不 再新鲜,但是,通过采取有着丰富的视觉体验的方式表达出来,仍然有着鲜活的价值。也正因为此,彼特·库尔特的作品并不仅仅愉悦了我们的视觉,同时也具备了 终极意义上的哲学价值。


我 们能够相信这个世界的意义基点是因为有着一个超验的“叙 事”逻辑,而能够被观察到的“物”构成了叙事的元素,“图像”是物的视觉暂留,而“像素”又是图像的基本构成,最终,“我们”又操控了像素的形态。在这个 循环的逻辑过程中,这些概念之间既相互依存着,又相互解构着,它们决定并模糊着我们生存的这个世界中可知和不可知的界限,或许,连“我们”也是一个不可知 的对象。

2010年6月11日  于北京通州