Blank video on Facebook

Blank video on Facebook

As I’m in the last week of my video postcard project for Colm Cille’s Spiral, in which I’ve been sending 15 second video postcards to whoever asks for one, I wanted to put down a couple of thoughts about one of the inspirations behind it, which I learned about from medieval literature PhD students at Kings College.

The Husband’s Message, an anonymous Old English poem, dates to around the 10th century and is one of the few surviving poetic compilations from the Anglo-Saxon period. Taken to be a love letter from a lord to his estranged wife, it nevertheless seems to be written from the perspective of the wood which bears the lines of the poem, that is, the object the husband sent out with his message:

 I remain true     to the tree I was hacked from
Wood I am, bearing     the marks of a man

The wood, which carries the message ‘cross the sea’ ‘borne on salt currents’, is therefore both a medium or a carrier for the content of the poem, and a speaker; it is a self-aware medium that both carries the message and reflects on its ability to carry it:

To you far away     I carry this message

However, the text of the poem is itself a medium, which casts it as a very early example of what Marshall McLuhan argued was characteristic of every medium: that its ‘content’ is always another medium, which ‘shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action’. In other words, look at the wood (the medium) and its power to shape human experience through its ability to carry messages, not just the poem (its content)- which is what the speaker of The Husbands Message invites the reader to do.

Cut With the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany by Hannah Hoch (1919-1920)

Foregrounding the artistic medium is described by Boulter and Grussin as hypermediacy, which they argue ‘makes us aware of the medium or media’ and is the counter-tendency to the prevailing logic of immediacy, which has dominated Western art since at least perspectival painting. Immediacy is the desire to efface and erase the medium, so as to allow the represented content (of the drawing, film, computer game) to appear more realistically to the viewer. In contrast, hypermediacy revels in its mediated nature, drawing the viewer’s attention to the medium, or surface, in examples as varied as collage, the heterogeneous windowed space of the web, and even the 16th century wunderkammer.

(Digression: this is interesting in light of the revival of this word as a curatorial strategy at the Venice Biennale’s Encyclopedic Palace exhibition, since, following this logic, it suggests the fore-grounding of the cabinet over the curiosities, i.e. the curator over the actual artworks, which has in fact been one of the main criticisms leveled at it, for example by Patricia Bickers in Art Monthly July/ Aug 13).

 

Other examples of the desire to foreground the facticity of mediation could be self-aware videos like Ryan Trecartin’s (indeed describing his work as ‘hyper-mediated’ is practically compulsory…) which acknowledge and even celebrate their mediated nature, conveyed through frequent direct-to-camera addresses, visible camera equipment, fractured editing and no attempt at ‘realism’ of story-lines, characters or settings.

Wunderkammer of Ferrante Imperato, Naples 1599

Another might be Hito Steyerl, whose low-res, fast-moving ‘poor images’ could be seen as making visible, rather than effacing, their mediated nature (pixellation jolts the viewer into awareness: this is a digital representation). Web-native poor images also bring into view the medium within which they circulate, that is, networked space, which similarly depends on a smooth, transparent graphical interface to keep users interacting without distraction. Broken links, error pages and slow internet speeds disrupt this fluidity, whose effectiveness in keeping us ‘plugged in’ is key to the Web 2.0 economy of value creation through participation- including sharing on social media, browsing, searching and buying online. Jodi Dean has argued that ‘communicative capitalism’ is predicated on the illusion of agency produced by continuous participation through platforms like Twitter, Facebook and so on, casting the absorptive effects of medium-erasure as politically coercive.

 

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Ryan Trecartin’s video installation at the Venice Biennial

But is a platform like Instagram or Facebook a medium, or a space for the sharing of other media, or both? Lev Manovich, in his new book Software Takes Command, argues that in the current situation, it may not be meaningful to even talk of different, discrete mediums at all; after all, the content of Instagram and its functioning as a platform, and beyond that the computer or mobile phone’s operating system, are all created in and made possible by software. He asks, “what happens to the idea of a “medium” after previously media-specific tools have been simulated and extended in software?” suggesting that a proliferation of media have been replaced by ‘one single monomedium, or a metamedium’.

In After Art, David Joselit argues in a shift from ‘object-based aesthetics’ toward ‘network aesthetics’ is underway, where artists stage a ‘performative mode of looking through which the single image and the network are visible at once’. In this mode, images have power and value due to their connectivity and relationship to other nodes of value, not for their intrinsic properties, echoing the way that “in informational economies of overproduction, value is derived not merely from the intrinsic qualities of a commodity (or other object), but from its searchability”, i.e. its ability to be found, and connected to other commodities.

Hito Steyerl

For Joselit, mediums, which produce singular objects, are now best considered subsets of formats, which he argues are ‘configurations of force’,  ‘provisional structures’ that aggregate and channel content, establishing patterns of links or connections between images. Artworks which privilege the reframing, capturing, re-use of existing content, rather than creating new content, all draw attention to both the image and its ‘aesthetic environment’, the nexus of connections and links ‘not only to messages, but to other social currencies like capital, real estate, politics’ within which it has power, value and visibility.

So to return briefly to The Husbands Message, the wood calls the viewers’ attention not just to the content it carries, and therefore its role as a medium, but also to the fact that it is itself ‘mediated’ through a ‘network’ of links: the ships, sailors’ hands and horse-drawn carriages that managed to transport it across the sea and far away. It also reflects on the communicative power of language, which is thrown into relief by the runes also included within its lines, whose precise meaning remain the subject of some debate amongst scholars. These secret messages are visible to the reader as language, but are semantically unintelligible; a message without code, or a medium without comprehensible content.