- Mobile Performance
- Electric Speed
- Schematic as Score
- (Re)purposed Clothes
- Collaborative Spaces
- Device Art
- Digital Dub
- Rise of the VJ
- Sample Culture
You are enjoying yourself at a party, engrossed in discussion with a colleague you have just met. He excuses himself to visit the hors d'oeuvres, and you turn your attention to the large flat-panel television on the wall. Your eye is caught by the beauty of a sublime mountain landscape, and then you are surprised when a waterfall explodes between two of the high peaks and tumbles down to a lake at the bottom of the frame. The splash of the waterfall spreads in circles across the lake, and as it spreads, it gradually transforms the shot into a completely different scene. You gaze is caught by both the magic-realist aesthetics of transformation and by the visual impact of the images themselves (see Figure 1 below). Then, your companion returns, and you return your attention to the living person and the pleasures of conversation.
This is Ambient Video - imagery intended to play on the walls in the backgrounds of our lives. In the spirit of Brian Eno's "ambient music", Ambient Video must be "as easy to ignore as it is to notice". For my own Ambient Video art, I have expanded Eno's dictum to three interrelated criteria that I believe ambient video work must satisfy:
The ubiquitous video screens in our domestic, corporate, institutional, and public environments provide rich ground in which ambient imagery can thrive. However, the three criteria for ambient video success are difficult to meet, regardless of venue. Eno saw this problem twenty five years ago when he wrote about his own ambient video art: "These pieces represent a response to what is presently the most interesting challenge of video: how does one make something that can be seen again and again in the way that a record can be listened to repeatedly? I feel that video makers have generally addressed this issue with very little success..."
The problem remains a significant aesthetic challenge. Some creative approaches are simply inconsistent with ambient experience. Narrative both attracts and relentlessly holds our attention, so most ambient works are essentially non-narrative. Fast cutting also draws attention to itself, so ambient works should be generally slower paced. The riveting spectacle of the classic "cinema of attractions" is also inconsistent with ambience, although this is a more complicated case. The complication arises because it is possible to position ambient video as a more modulated and low-key version of the cinema of attractions. An ambient visual attraction must be subtle enough that it doesn't command attention, but also interesting enough to support attention when it is bestowed, and to sustain interest over repeated viewings.
The television itself has long been used as an ambient device - often purposely left on whether people are actively watching or not. Some video works have been explicitly designed to act as ambient visuals - the classic example being the Yule Log. The burning log has been seen in broadcasts, video tapes, DVD's and Blue Ray discs since its first appearance on WPIX New York at Christmas 1966. However, like its close cousin - the "Video Aquarium" - and a number of other variations on these simple-minded visual themes - the Yule Log is kitsch, not art.
Ambient Video as Art
Ambient video can transcend kitsch and be conceived and executed as art. To identify the roots of the ambient aesthetic in the history of experimental cinema and video art, see my article in the journal Fibreculture. For my own work, I rely on three specific aesthetic interventions to create ambient videos that can claim to be art. The first is a reliance on strong composition, lighting and cinematography. Since ambient video is slow-paced, the form needs visual compositions that will sustain over exceedingly long screen durations. Working closely with my Director of Photography, Glen Crawford, I seek these strong visuals in nature, and in particular in the spectacular scenery of the Canadian Rockies. The raw materials of my work are the elemental components of the mountain environment: earth (rocks, peaks, ranges), air (clouds) and water (creeks, rivers, lakes, snow and ice).
The second aesthetic intervention is the treatment of cinematic time. Ambient art thrives on subjects that present motion in a fixed spot without requiring a camera move to track the subject. Water and clouds are perfect examples. However the motion provides more visual interest if the time base is altered. Typically, water is slowed down and clouds are sped up - often within the same shot. Cinematic time is therefore treated as plastic - a malleable creative parameter to be shaped and manipulated.
Cinematic space is treated as plastic in an even more intensive fashion. This third aesthetic intervention is far more complex and difficult to achieve - the aggressive use of video layers and layered transitions. The images are first fragmented, then recombined. Shots are deconstructed into visual elements, and new elements from the incoming scene are slowly introduced on top of the existing scene, until they completely replace it - and the new shot has been created. This process continues throughout the film, as one landscape forms within and over its predecessor in an endless chain. Each transition occurs in several stages, and each stage is carefully planned, mapped and executed with detailed attention to visual flow and the changing gestalts of the outgoing and the incoming shot. Figure 1 below is an example: the waterfall appears magically - tumbling down one of the mountain passes to the lake below. The transition then gradually reveals the entire next shot with the waterfall in its proper context - losing the lake and the original mountain range.
Figure 1: Scene Transition from Rockface