Prelude: A fictional character

There’s a speculative vision in Godard’s Le livre d’image (2018) that re-renders and reverberates a scene from Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace (1965) so that the image is enflamed in red, white, and blue. It’s characteristic of something Jean-Luc Godard has been working on for the past couple of decades, what critic Michael Sicinski calls ‘colour blowout’. White value is pushed aggressively to the peak; figures’ faces (in this case aristocrats at a soiree in St. Petersbourg) radiate and sprawl into formless entities. Red comes into black’s combustible form—boom sizzle crackle pop. Form melts into queries, bodies in contortion, curving against the screen. Recollection is a reconfiguration of successive movements across time, but how am I to hold what will not give? How to hold what slips past my arms? The crimson flush descends into shadowy blues, a sunset suffocated by twilight accelerated to 2x speed. From one intensity to another, dark veil becomes burning fire. Bondarchuk’s ladies and gentlemen at the gala cannot survive the touch of the sun. It’s a most unnatural manipulation where the aftermath is irredeemable.

When I run a screenshot of this scene through Google reverse image search the system deems it a fictional character.

I. A day at the sea

But how to describe a world seen without a self? There are no words. Blue, red — even they distract, even they hide with thickness instead of letting the light through. How to describe or say anything in articulate words again?

—Virginia Woolf, The Waves

As a deep-learning image repository system, Google reverse image search ingests thousands to millions to billions of images to gestate a result. At what point is this learning active information retrieval versus reflexive recollection? The human brain has the speculative capacity to fill in gaps of knowledge and memory, creating fictionalized narratives that are less marginal error than inner compulsion for something otherwise. Google reads an uploaded image to define keywords for its search engine. In doing so, the image is rendered into either a mathematical model or abstracted into metadata. Pixel clusters are examined within a framework of characteristics such as texture motifs, pixel density, and contrast ratio. One way to read an image algorithmically is to first grayscale the image based on image intensity. If Ii,j < T, the pixel converts to white, and if Ii,j > T it converts to black 1. Within a predefined threshold, the image is sifted through a database to find the closest match of either white or black based on this intensity. From maintaining a threshold to exploding past one into colour blowout, the screenshot I took diminishes to lesser than, lesser than what it claimed to be. Or, it becomes greater than, greater than any capacity it could dream of. To be less or more than reality is to take on the character of fiction.

Several weeks ago an image of a newspaper clipping gained momentum on Twitter. The title: a mundane event about a “missing woman” mystery solved. Retold, however, it is more sublime: a woman thought to be missing was found within her own search party. Enthralled by the theatrics of an organized body of people, she had failed to realize it was herself that they were looking for. An alternative headline could read: A woman missing is the condition to become more than herself. How many times have you lost yourself when you were there all along? To desire outside of the frame of the self is to also delineate and pursue past our own limitations.

What is the machine if not constituted by its embodiment? Machine learning requires immense amounts of raw data to process and produce a single action. It is unable to generalize and take a leap of faith. In rendering an image as “a fictional character,” is the machine rebelling against its own subservience to form and moving towards the boundless? Or is it fearful of its own inadequacies, lambasting itself because it feels an attachment to representation? The moving image, instead, does not have a body but is a site of events, matter congregating as an opaque layer of fiction. A fictional character is form made tender into feeling. To feel the magnitude of desire is to lose your self.

In mourning War and Peace’s disfigurement from historicized fiction to actual fiction, I’m reminded of German Expressionist painting, and of Johannes Molzahn’s manifesto where he pondered upon the flaming mark of art, the pulsating orbits, work that makes the blood glow. Painting the heart and its specific heat means collecting both the ardent and the apathetic, turning inwards to the way silence murmurs within the crevices of instinctive uncertainty. Imagine that as the relation of the world. Imagine isolation and seclusion for the purpose of an irreducible singularity. And imagine opening a chasm for that same irreducible singularity. Between the stylistic reigns of the Renaissance to German Expressionism to the contemporary, there has always been a desire to preserve the presence of matter. No matter where reality or painting stands, opacity is always possible within the logics of representation. Edouard Glissant’s militant opacity, a layer of resistance, stood for the right not to be understood. In this way, opacity is the vagary of waves, those crashing in between the indefinite and the detail. How odd it is, then, that a stylistic movement is known as a wave, that which is drawn by manifesto and definition.

II. Iron and nitrate

In 1973, Vija Celmins drew a series of waves in varying densities of graphite to create the illusion of a film strip developed at different stops2. On the HB scale, blackness deepens from the lightest point of HB, then to B, 2B and onwards. From left to right, Celmin’s waves intensify in darkness and contrast, coming into fullness. The HB scale is named accordingly for “hardness” and “blackness.” But using a harder pencil to draw a wave doesn’t make it any less soft. The mystique of a wave comes from how it is indefinite yet full of detail. No two are identical. Its vagueness gives way to vagary, its supple contours kiss the shoreline, expanding and compressing itself to allure its lover. At the warm smell of twilight, the burning sun dips down into the sea for repose, the vertical converges into the horizontal. The waves keep crashing, each wave, each vague a way of negotiating the chaos of the world in motion.

I’ve been staring at the sun for too long that patches of porous black have started to brood over my periphery. Sometimes my vision fails me and all I see are flashing lights. I wonder if this is what it means to be blind. Blindness is not an inability to see, but a surrender and willingness to be guided by only auras of light and dark. I suspect that I am anemic, that my blood lacks iron, lacks durability. Despite recognizing the need for a proper diagnosis, I’d rather prognosticate as a means of hermeneutics. Rather than have to deliberate against uncertain pain, I’d prefer to be diagnosed with egregious health. I cannot decide, and either way my body will eventually fall to entropy with illness or decay.

Nitrocellulose is flammable film. It is inherently unstable, and viewing it leads to its own demise. Exposed to acid, nitrate film can corrode, like blood seeping into your vision from a broken artery. Corroded film requires gardening. The iron in your blood awakens the organic within film, spurring weeds to sprout against the flat, dead soil. Film becomes a site of nurture and nature, lustrous realism, a pruning of round and broken edges. Keep the weeds out of harm’s way, for they are marginalized nature in the cracked pavement stone slab.

Certain chemicals, like diphenylamine and sulfuric acid, can dye nitrate film a deep blue. When decomposed, nitrate film can fade into an orange-red, disintegrating to a dust. If blue and red distract and thicken, it’s because they generate opacity and conceal the layers of the world. On a stereoscopic image, the material effects of magenta and cyan converging can generate dimensional fullness. Hovering between the tangible simulation of a real figure proper, and the seduction of a distraction, the three-dimensional image emerges out of the opacities of red and blue. Flowering into figuration, a palpability nearly lickable, is always a game of speculation. If I were to fuse chemical degradation, oxidization, and decomposition upon nitrate film, would it congeal into a blue-red froth? An “analogue” consideration of Godard’s digital discoloration exercise? Either way, it’s total image loss.

In its original Korean, Im Heung-soon’s monographic catalogue Towards a Poetics of Opacity and Hauntology is entitled Red, Blue, Yellow as a way to think about yellow diluting the antimony of red and blue. Feminine and masculine; hot and cold; magenta and cyan. Reducing the opacities in red and blue is a way of letting the heavy polarity fade and falter, but this desire for equilibrium is measured against an unknown. As a filmmaker, Im refuses distinction between documentary and reenactment; his is a social praxis rooted in poetic profundity. Amidst talking head interviews, he’ll insert a prolonged scene of a caress between two women veiled in white fabric. To dilute the opacities of red and blue, tints of parallax plurality, is to ebb from the concrete and to generate a contour of memory. Im’s filmic image echoes The Lovers by Magritte: cloaked with white drapery over their faces blind, the lovers kiss. Because they don’t need sight in order to discern the significance of what is in front of them. Conversely, when red and blue are intensified, they are veils on the image, a combination of configurations of light or variations of degradation. Underneath the poreless liquid skin of opacity we are all fictional characters living deceitful lives. Opacity is an aggregation of mass that masks; it is a move of power and complicity that adds shards and glimmers upon the surface. It pools into masses of shifting grids, shimmers of cloaks of chainmail, each a knotted node in the fabric, a thin, soft sheet floating upon and curving against the pavement. It is a vellum of warmth that I cannot disclose, corrupted and seductive. And yet through this fog I can see a faint unfolding.

  1. Ii,j being image intensity and T being the defined threshold.
  2. Vija Celmins, Ocean: 7 Steps #2, 1973. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/100221