Artist’s Statement: This piece is inspired by some recent video art which blends luminous and opaque color with photographic imagery. Color, like water and electricity, is difficult to harness and control. Who is to say when we have caught it and when we have not? The body may respond affirmatively to what it sees, optically, haptically, or otherwise, but the body too is hardly within our control. It is like color, also caught within technologies of control and discipline. While there are ceaseless attempts to escape, these attempts are only ever conceivable within the conditions of possibility of that system, rendering each attempt futile and frustrating.
Photoshop Color & Stylistic Blindness in Contemporary Digital Imaging
by Carolyn L. Kane
“Concern with effect rather than meaning is a basic change of our electric time…”
—Marshall McLuhan (1964)
Color, like water and electricity, is difficult to harness and control. Who is to say when we have caught it and when we have not? Analogously, the human body may respond affirmatively to what it sees, optically, haptically, or otherwise, but the body too is hardly within our mastery or control. The body is like color, both are caught within the same technologies of control and ordering systems that attempt to discipline and master them. And while there are ceaseless attempts to escape (through abstraction, physicality, or drugs) these attempts are only ever conceivable within the conditions of possibility of these control systems and societies, therein rendering each attempt futile and frustrating. And yet, ongoing attempts to discipline and harness color are intrinsic to every new media and modern culture, and eventually one finds a means and a way to transgress, rupture, or undo coherent order.
My experimental video piece, Color Control 1: Caught and Escaping (2008), which accompanies this short descriptive essay, is a meditation and reflection on this essentially ambivalent status of color and embodiment. Both are always fraught between these poles; at once degraded and dismissed as merely concretized matter, and yet also that which delights, attracts, and mysteriously seduces the visual senses. But the work is also connected to a larger trend emerging in digital visual media, namely in art-house cinema and to some degree in international and mainstream feature films, which I term, the “Photoshop cinema.” (In fact, Color Control was made while I was doing research for the chapter, “The Photoshop cinema” in my 2014 forthcoming book Chromatic Algorithms: Synthetic Color, Computer Art, and Aesthetics after Code.) Color Control is thus largely inspired by recent trends and uses of digital color in contemporary video art, characterized by opaque, highly saturated patches of digital color, juxtaposed with photographic images, live-action footage, text, or other forms of mixed media.
One primary example of the Photoshop cinema is illustrated in the work of American artist Jeremy Blake (1971 -2007), in terms of both his colorful gallery work and visual art collaborations for established directors and musicians including Paul Thomas Anderson in Punch Drunk Love (2002), Lars Von Trier for the opening sequence of Dancer in the Dark (2000), and Beck for his album Sea Change (2002). Other examples of the Photoshop cinema include Pleasantville (2000), The Aviator (2004), Waking Life (2001), A Scanner Darkly (2006) and Speed Racer (2008). What all of these examples (and numerous others that must be excluded) have in common is the use of thick patches of Photoshop (or software equivalent) color to incite both an ontological and stylistic blindness in the image, one of the defining characteristics of the Photoshop cinema. Stylistic blindness occurs on the level of the visceral and surface of the screen: the opacity of dense, abstract color, as seen in the introductory sequence to Dancer in the Dark where color patterns dance and move as symbols of protagonist Selma’s literal blindness. Ontological blindness extends from visceral blindness. What can become or be experienced in the world today is blocked, sometimes by color, technology, or embodied facticity, but also by ideology, power-relations, and history, the latter of which present true sites and sources of blindness.
My theory of the Photoshop cinema is also offered as a counterpart to new media theorist Lev Manovich’s theory of the “Generation Flash” from 2005. In this important essay Manovich describes the simple, thin, and clean, Bauhaus-like lines then prominent in digital media and especially, Internet aesthetics after the advent of hybrid media application like Flash. Flash, now being (apparently) phased out by HTML 5, is a vector-based software which means that it relies on lines to draw its images and graphics and in this way is cleaner and lighter than Photoshop images.
In contrast, Photoshop graphic files (called “bitmap” or pixel-based files) are thick and bulkier than vector systems. Big, colorful, bitmap images slow down the system, take up more storage space and require more processing to render. But these images are nonetheless used by numerous artists and filmmakers for the primary reason that they allow for an unprecedented mixing of media forms, layers, content, which results in a mixing of the layers of history and style, which I alluded to above as a kind of ontological opacity. This effect is especially apparent in Blake’s beautiful Winchester Trilogy (2002-2004), the unfinished Glitterbest (2007), Reading Ossie Clark (2005), and Sodium Fox (2005), all of which deploy highly saturated Photoshop colors to mix layers of history, experience, and memory, with photography, text, and animation. In short, the Photoshop cinema style speaks to a general trend in digital colorism in contemporary media aesthetics after 2000. That is, once characterized by a cool and banal indifference, a pseudo-objectivity that can only be seen when it is historically compared to and contrasted with the radical emotional and subjective aesthetics that characterized early digital and electronic colorism in the utopian and visionary computer art experiments conducted in the 1960s and 1970s. It is of course unfair to end this short description and essay with such a provocation and set of unsupported claims, though I must now refer readers to the very colorful Chromatic Algorithms, forthcoming in March of 2014 from the University of Chicago Press.