Paul Groot 1 Jan 1999

All those Senselessly Lovely Clickable Buttons

It's evidently the lot of every new medium: the grabbing desire with which technological opportunity is seized. Hollywood made itself master of the film, Hitler of the radio, advertising took over tv, Microsoft took the Net. The latter monopolised the new medium, and thus Bill Gates is getting more and more successful a grip on the billions of clicking motions with which, in a sense, he controls modern life. It is as frightening as it is affecting, the way in which an apparently existential need to click is becoming an essential condition. Naturally, trouble isn't far off: It's only a question of time until the first Freud of the clicking generation announces him- or herself.


Fingered and Sombrest lying on the carpet - Thomas Buxó, Miklós Beyer 'La Cinca' -Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 9#4 / 10#1

It has often been argued that the desktop formula's clickable atmosphere has seen its best days, thanks to speech technology. But Gates, after the example of Mark Andressen and his Netscape Navigator, has linked us to the desktop for another decade with the Internet Explorer.

That's remarkable, because as sensitive and artistic as Gates is, until recently he was only really able to imagine the Net as a glorified home theatre 1

1For Gates' artistic in- and aspirations, see Paul Groot 'Andy Warhol and Bill Gates: Visions of a Seminal Artist in the Form of the Richest Man in America,' in:// Flash Art//, Vol. xxx, no.192, pp. 67-69

It was not chat rooms, nor e-mail, nor group sessions, but film that seemed to him to be the ideal Internet medium. And as long as real movie streaming wasn't possible, the Net wouldn't become much of anything.

But now that movie streaming more or less exists, we no longer hear Gates talking about the cinematic sphere. That's no surprise, because he would completely lose his grasp on the Net again. But for those who would escape his influence, the movie channel now seems the ideal browser. Why not simply send the desktop definitively to the wastebasket with the help of an immortal cinematic genre? Will we never get enough of those ever-lovelier clickable buttons?2

2 For the most beautiful buttons in the world, Bas Ording's, see Ine Poppe 'Finger on the Button' in:// If/Then,// Vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 258-259

You only need to consult a film dictionary to see how, without at first glance even diverging from the desktop interface, you can land suddenly in a totally different environment completely made for your computer.

For the monitor is the ideal film screen. You start by innocently browsing, but a cinematic atmosphere appears quickly once you notice via unexpected rollovers how your links turn into film strips and begin to tell their own story. The space you land in is a montage space; now you're suddenly dealing with film strips to insert or discard, and before you know it you're sitting in a hall of mirrors that quickly turns out to be the inside of a camera. And there begins your work as director. No genre is miscast there; you can make it a purely technical affair.3

3 The ideal point of departure for this experiment is undoubtedly Ira Koningsberg The Complete Film Dictionary Bloomsbury 1997, a film history organized encyclopedically on the basis not of artistic but of technical innovations in the medium

Or it would undoubtedly be much nicer to make it a cinematic portrait gallery. But there's a middle road by which you can balance stars and technology.4

4 See Peter Wollen Signs and Meaning in the Cinema Bloomington/London 1972

It is the computer as a technologically and theoretically cinematographical domain, as a contemporary and historical medium, in which Eisenstein's experiments go hand in hand with Richard Linklater's. But all combinations are possible.

A good, but very random, example is how Alain Delon and director Jean-Pierre Melville worked together on Le Samourai (1967). In this wonderful gangster film, Delon, who renders his best role ever here, outside the exciting story also indicates totally different narratives. For example, one in which Melville offers a nice variation and alternative to desktop windows. Delon portrays a gangster conditioned down to his toes. He embodies the essence of the Parisian underworld - down to the details he obeys the unwritten codes and horrifying rules of French etiquette. A robotlike figure who, if we look back at the film now, immediately evokes thoughts of the Net agent. And then makes clear how masterfully Melville makes use of frames in his images. He deals in them wholesale. Frames of all sorts and sizes, from the grand entrance of a nightclub to the tiny workings of a watch. From literal frames to figurative, spiritual, associative or concrete, ultimately it doesn't matter. Melville transports you and Delon around the streets of Paris, but at the same time you find yourself on another, much more mysterious quest. Driven along from one scene to the next, with unmet promises as the chief producers of tension - what are those portraits doing on the wall, what is the function of that clock, what was the conversation he refers to about? - you are simultaneously carried along on a whole different trip.

As if, for the duration of the film, you're traversing the Net yourself as an agent. Or maybe even as a virtual message, a lost e-mail, wandering through the underworld of Paris. A quest which, once discovered behind the first layer of Melville's and Delon's story, becomes recognisable in many other films too. For example, in road movies, whose endless highways, stretching out toward faraway horizons as uncertain links to an even more uncertain future, seem made for the Net. A couple in search of happiness, lost on a road to nowhere. Imagine Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina in Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou, Keith Carradine and Shelley Duval in Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us, or maybe that unbelievable human menagerie in Gummo. It doesn't really matter, as long as you understand the signs. Film, which is most of all an unfamiliar database, spreads out a neural network, makes a query and tries out the unknown result. And when the filmic, poetic metaphors are exhausted, you can take another step and use the Net simply as an editing room pur sang. The editing room as a big Eisenstein montage box with Pixar technology. A big instrument box full of cameras, discarded lenses, futuristic viewfinders and played-out stars. With a creative use of cinematic material, you can detach the medium from its own sphere, make it of this world, alienate it from itself.

Invent a star and give her a name... like Fingered & Sombrest

A cinematic browser begins with not much more than a still, a film star's picture; call her, say, Fingered & Sombrest, and begin your work. Use D.W. Griffith's old technique to make her appear at different times, yet simultaneously. Employ the parallax view, show her from different angles as if you're looking through the viewfinder and camera lens at the same time (as Alan Pakula did in The Parallax View.) Your star as a sort of figure drawn wrong à la Picasso. Or put her in the pass so as to catch her light, special effects and spiritual radiation and combine them. In short, emulate old techniques - use the zoetrope to alternate the gif animations. You distribute her likeness over a series of images stuck inside a turning drum which must be viewed from outside, through holes.

It's fun to give her such a lovely past, but you can just as well remove her from the browser's limitations instead by putting that clicking scenery in deep focus. After you've got her radiating in a seductive soft focus, determine her position in an expanded scene with fore-, middle and background. Not a collection of individual shots that determine a picture, but a mise-en-scène in which everything is incorporated together. As deep focus was, as it were, immortalized in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane as a metaphor for the printed mass media, here it can stand for digital information overload. But it can just as well be used to show the individual psychology of Fingered & Sombrest. We give her a different identity and place her in stationary pictures, with lots of deep focus, and leave the editing to the viewer's imagination. Fingered & Sombrest might appear as an actress in a Yasujiro Ozu film, shown from the low angle of a Japanese man kneeling on a mat. Or in deep focus with adjusted light and many shadows to give everything a much grimmer atmosphere. The ambiguity that comes forth, metaphorical or poetic, practical or not, is the point.

Better the threatening atmosphere of an unknown world than the narcissistic atmosphere of clicking. Clicking behaviour, a term that precisely expresses the poverty of the browser, must be converted into a literally applicable metaphor. For example, a three-dimensional approach that puts you inside a hologram structure, clear and deep of field. The interference of light beams translated into the interference of links, combined with a fuzzy-logic tool so as to make a real third-dimension poetry machine, as the natural successor of the search engines. Fingered & Sombrest as the grande dame of a new poetics which, surrounded by software that sounds like a Dolby system with surround-sound speakers and subwoofers, brings the search engine further out of balance.

Because without stars, without sexual provocation, without physical beauty there is no film. The film star is the ultimate model that brings about an alienation in our perception of the Web. Fingered & Sombrest gives us a nice preview, without it being immediately clear how this model will work in practice. Imagine her as an agent in the metamorphosed browser and apply all possible techniques to her. Use her to make her appear, parallel-cut, switching between related actions in various places. And present your cinematic and verbal trip through the trash of the Net as a photographic soap.

What happens when the message pockets the medium

Anyway, you don't have to invent Fingered & Sombrest, because she exists. She is the main character in La Cinca i.a., a funny photographic soap by Miklós Beyer and Thomas Buxó, and she has all the qualities necessary for achieving cult status.5

5 Miklós Beyer and Thomas Buxó La Cinca i.a., Amsterdam 1998, isbn 90 9012304 0

What is most noticeable about her at first sight? She is tall and thin and in her photo she wears a ravishingly lovely dress with a jaguar pattern. Half-lying on a beautiful carpet, she looks even faster than the two jaguars shown, attentive yet lazy, on a branch on the carpet. Did she just arrive home exhausted, has she been through something horrible, or is she a best-selling author thinking about the next passage in her new novel? Is that gun a prop or has she just used it to drive unwelcome intruders out of her house? Victorious, or a victim of a fateful adventure?

One thing is clear, whatever you think of her, she is the leading character in an endless series of stories. La Cinca i.a. is the world of today and tomorrow, a utopia that is simultaneously an atopia, where the airport whose flight schedules she plans her life around could be any airport in the world. And though she appears in a story of air travel, her adventure could just as well be an old-fashioned road movie as a futuristic trip in space. For it is an adventure in photo and text whose story lines and ending you mostly invent yourself. No one who has met and seen her can escape. You don't forget her easily, partly because her role is not really defined. She appears and disappears in chapter 4, location 4, Ricardo's Dining Room, but what does that mean? How deep is her involvement in this mysterious book; in which role does she best recognize herself? It is as if this photographic novel does not want to tell a linear story, but merely hand the reader clues and leave him to his fate. Or leave him to his own story. If this is so, then to me, Fingered & Sombrest is the ideal lead character. She gives all the other figures who pop up purpose and meaning. You can easily weave a real detective story around her, with contemporary adventures in the James Bond vein. This is an adventure of airports and Concordes, cell phones and the Internet, super-fast cars and, especially, digital manipulation. A futuristic, ambiguous novel, a suggestive narrative cut and pasted together from separate components, in which Fingered & Sombrest gives sudden shape to a story not always perfectly clear at the start. At first there is that alien feeling when you are moving on new territory whose rules you don't yet know. But when she appears, everything falls into place. Not that the alienation disappears; on the contrary, it is as if it deepens based on her appearance. The manipulation visibly used by Beyer and Buxó is suddenly believable, takes on a vivid creative-artistic significance.

What once was a picture montage is henceforth called lacincaia-tion. It's the remains of the cut-and-paste method in a post-collage stage, beyond Photoshop (though it may still be used as a tool), as a 21st-century phenomenon. And, in an obvious state of excitement comparable to that in years past when Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag articulated the aesthetics of the time with their essays, in La Cinca i.a. Beyer and Buxó have given form to the coming photographic aesthetic. Sontag and Barthes described the art of Riefenstahl and the Citroën ds, goddess among cars, and gave form to photo reception. Since then, the analog photograph has become history, and the digital photograph is being perfected. And in the hands of Beyer and Buxó it is given a definitive frame. Not in an essayistic description, but visually-textually in a databasic form. In the form of Fingered & Sombrest as the appropriated star who activates the photo analysis of the coming century. All the more remarkable because, borrowed from a perfume ad, she looks very analog, and meant as a photo, is yet here a messenger of the new development. Typically modern-day cultural alienation is nowhere so visible as in the emulation of various computer cinemas on each other's platforms, and this analog image in the digital age is its disorganizing model. She plays a mysterious role in an equally mysterious photo-soap, where the fragments borrowed from the Web are used as a methodical declaration of intent. Fingered & Sombrest conveys the mystery of Deneuve, the sexuality of Monroe, the stickishness of the anorexic model, immediately to the medium itself. A big dose of kitsch besides gives this photo-soap the necessary predictability and an unsupersedable intimacy. And there is the paradoxical image that sharply registers the coming aesthetics of the Net through relatively familiar media: photograph on paper, text and photomontage. For with Fingered & Sombrest and her cohorts, Beyer and Buxó not only give shape to the figures of the coming decade - as Rineke Dijkstra did to this one's - but they do it for a medium in which these figures don't even appear. Dijkstra's models are exemplary because, as unmoving as they seem in the photographs, they visibly move in a vacant space that extends between life and work, between public and private. And constantly stumbling, falling, getting hurt, and finally yet still masters over themselves, succeeding in being themselves. Something similar is going on with Fingered & Sombrest. Although she's a paper figure, she tries to be herself by representing not herself, not even the medium in which she radiates, but something else again. The structure is notable, even though she looks like nothing but a manipulated soap star.

Her fellow cast members in La Cinca i.a., too, shake the traditional notions of form and content. Like the little boy looking upward, with a businessman in the background and a Chesterfield as evidence of an unwritten drama. Or the nose of the airplane that looks as if it might shoot off any second, like an arrow from a bow. The elementary narrative tension sends a signal of the Net, not just on paper. The aura here leaves the McLuhanian idea of medium and message far behind. It's not just another form of role-playing, but simply an opposition become unrecognizable, dissolved in a void of meaning. For the tension between representation and the represented, between private and public, between image and text, between real and acted, is no longer relevant here. Everything appears and moves in a photo-soap, an established genre, but the medium it makes pronouncements about, and its true world, is the Net. Form and content, medium and message have no impact here. The way in which players move between truth and lie, between tough self and lying character, is still unformulated. Everything rational and emotional they radiate has bearing on that.

Outside the Net you come to life; that is the alienating world of the Net.

Fingered & Sombrest's limitations as her secret strength

Naturally, Fingered & Sombrest or one of her many splinters are as visibly absent as invisibly present on the Net. Somewhere there must be an amazingly designed site where we can find her, not flat, but in three or more dimensions, maybe as a collection of ten thousand polygons, but more likely elegantly compressed into her supporting b-splines. And do the curved lines of the nurbs support her irresistible figure, or do they play peekaboo with her somewhere as gif animation? We find her best application, though, in the photo-soap. For once she's left paper she's an historic figure and her artistic significance loses its timeliness. But as long as this is not the case her paper existence retains its importance.

Why is that?

Perhaps because it's precisely in those paper limitations that she shows her true power. As long as she has not yet fulfilled her potential promises on the Net - in fast and efficient image and sound - the paper Fingered & Sombrest remains the figurehead of the Web. In her limited but effective paper existence as an exciting film star she transforms the undeveloped Net metaphorically into a movie network. Thanks to Fingered & Sombrest's alienation it can fulfil all its unfulfilled promises and lead a tolerated existence. In the continuing euphoria of the Net, with all its (un)expected shifts and switches, ambiguous possibilities can be exploited. This medium without a past is double- and many-sided, and has time enough to attain its own identity someday.

The players in this photo-soap care nothing for a narrative context or a broader coherence, though they realize there must be something to understand somewhere - but where and how? They couldn't care less whether they live exclusively in digital images or are seen as a reproduction of real human life. The question of whether these manipulated beings of a future order are really living figures or futuristic image formations does not affect them. The temporary narrative context makes them, in a way, invisible rather than noticeable. They may be visible for those used to thinking narratively, but at the same time they are in a sense invisible to many other ways of looking. They are taken from the Net and brought together in a sensitive manner. But on the Net they are among many; printed on paper they embody the paradox that what is trash on the Net represents its most exciting state of the art offline. The players of La Cinca i.a. still have time, though the limited experiments of their environment are changing fast.

The mathematic formula or the alchemical as symbol?

The nice thing about Fingered & Sombrest is that she embodies, in an image of beauty paired with intelligence, the Net's artistic possibilities. Outside the obvious technology of the Net itself, she truly comes to life in her alienation on paper, and reveals that specific art that might be called Net art. The nice thing about the high speed of the Net is that she needn't remain alone, and experiments ventured on her can be done quickly. The clickable desktop browser is open to one metaphorical application after another. The search engine as natural signposting for the Net was discovered as a poetry machine long ago, but who knows the way to, say, the mathematical, chemical or alchemical spheres? Who will develop the alchemical crystal or the mathematical formula as symbol for the Net? How many more allegories can you think of? How extensive is the baroque gallery of possibilities, and how much competition can it take?

You need time to alienate the Net from itself and thus get a better overview of its qualities. Teach the medium not to be itself, take a distance from its contemporary players, and for now grant the Net an improvised two-dimensional existence in metaphor and allegory. Strip it, look at it from all sides, and remove it from itself and from Microsoft and Bill Gates. Unleash all metaphors and allegories upon it, as Beyer and Buxó do. Fingered & Sombrest weakens the hold of click culture, as simply effective as it is deplorably one-sided. Her shifting efforts naturally ensure an ever more diversified application. You can alternate the jargon and the methodology of the Web browser with a somewhat more distinguished terminology. The trick is clearly in alienating the application. Precisely in alienating a medium that has not yet found its own identity, you make it, as it were, conscious of itself.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

translation laura martz