You are probably breaking the law when you film your child performing

Amidst all the current discussion over the threats of facial recognition software and message encryption to personal privacy and online discourse, other more longstanding contractions of our everyday public space continue their creep. Thus the ABC can publish an online article today quoting legal advice that parents should not video their kiddies at school concerts because they are infringing the copyright owners of the popular songs to which the kiddies are dancing. As the Arts Law Centre warns ominously: ‘if the entertainment company that owns the copyright decides that they’re going to crack down on this particular type of infringement, then as a parent you’re potentially at risk’.

This now apparently acceptable notion that even intimate moments of familial sharing are privatised in both senses — personal but also  privately ‘owned’ — so proud parents should now just purchase their cherished memories by buying the offical DVD, casts a grim chill over the valuable role family photography has played in social cohesion for a century — from Kodak moments to Facebook pages.

I agree more and more with the recommendations of the Australian Law Reform Commission, made five years ago and never acted on by our government, that existing specific Fair Dealing copyright exemptions  should be expanded with Fair Use exemptions, including exemptions for ‘non-commercial private use’. Some may see the the calls for expanded ‘fair use’ exemptions as a stalking horse for online distribution platforms exploiting small content producers, but the positive function of personal cameras in social space has also to be taken into account.

Oh what a lovely war

I started to complain about Peter Jackson’s commission from the Imperial War Museum to colourise their archival war footage when I first heard about it earlier this year, and now I’ve actually seen the result, ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’, I’ve decided to keep on complaining. This, despite two moments in his feature length film about the experience of English men at the Western Front which do truly take the breath away.

Jackson bookends his VFX historical concoction with two extended sequences of ‘authentic’ black and white footage complete with scratches, hair in the gate, and even the clattering sound of an old film projector. About half an hour into the film, at the moment in the film’s narrative when the men arrive at the Front we, the audience, see the ‘archival’ film magically transition to full colour, correct speed, and full cineplex-quality Dolby sound. To Jackson’s credit it is a truly astonishing, and moving, moment. We are exiting History and entering Experience. After about another hour, when the men have won the War, we transition again, back home to jerky black and white, from Experience back to mere History.

These moments have roots deep in the history of media. In the 1890s many people  saw their first kinematograph film through a hand cranked attachment placed on the front of a magic lantern. Canny operators would hold the first frame of their ninety second filmstrip in the gate so the audience thought they were looking at a standard glass magic lantern slide, then they would begin to crank the image into lifelike animation. This moment of phenomenological wonder wrought by drawing attention to the very apparatus of representation itself has been rehearsed frequently since. Perhaps most pertinent to Jackson’s film is the transition from black and white to colour, at about the same narrative points, in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, where the film transitions from the familiar Hollywood black and white to the new Technicolor. We’re not in Kansas anymore in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, just as we’re not in Documentary anymore in ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’.

These two moments are the film’s triumph, and all the talk has rightly been about the creation of lived experience from supposedly inert archival material — the lip reading, the stretched frame rate, the image sharpening, the 3D, and so on. So it is interesting that many of these ‘effects’, so lauded for their technical novelty today, were in fact in play before the War itself had even ended.

A giant composite mural coloured with aerograph and oil stick on dispaly c1918, from Imperial War Museum archive.

Jackson composites separate archival images together into the one frame, he passes off footage shot of training exercises as actual battles, and he closely edits together images shot far apart to make it seem as though we are seeing one action, one dramatic moment. I’m not going to be churlish, that’s fine. In fact it was being done in 1918, even before the Armistice, by the photographers Ivor Castle and Frank Hurley who worked for the Canadian, British and Australian propaganda units. They did it for a series of giant collages and hand coloured murals made for exhibitions in the UK during 1918. The only VFX Jackson has in his arsenal which Castle and Hurley didn’t have is the loop. And he uses the loop to dilate time like the master he is. In his film men look over their shoulder with impending dread, or stroke the necks of dogs with PTSD distraction, for a sublime, looped, eternity.

The fact that the War was actually being commemorated before it had even ended is only one of the about five billion other inconvenient truths about the War which Jackson’s film has to ignore in order to sustain itself. The film might be about a male English soldier’s experience, but surely we can handle more complexity than the Joseph Cambellesque narrative arc of: we didn’t know what we were getting into, it was an industrial hell, we had a battle where we found reserves of Edwardian heroism we didn’t know we had, we won that battle, we returned home and nobody understood us.

That this is a story from the cineplex, not reality, is betrayed by the fact that in the frenzied thick of its digital editing of the battle sequence the film doesn’t distinguish between photographic imagery and popular graphic imagery derived from Boy’s Own propaganda. True, there is virtually no imagery directly from WW1 battles, so Jackson had a problem. A film which used the same footage as Jackson’s, Charles Urban’s ‘The Battle of the Somme’, shown in London in 1916  (two years before the Armistice)  to bring the reality of trench warfare home to complacent UK audiences, had the same problem, and also had to use footage of training exercises to stand in for actual battles. And perhaps Jackson was also trying to make the point that for these brief moments the young men temporarily entered the mythology of war under which they had enlisted, but even if he is trying to make this jingoistic point, is it is lost in the ontological muddling.

The only thing masking the narrative banality which is at the heart of Jackson’s film, and which it cannot rise above, is the voices of the returned soldiers which drive the soundtrack. They also have been been conjured from the archive of oral history, but come through, along with all their distinct and distant accents, as clear as a bell. Without those voices, Jackson’s VFX would bleach to nothing.

Their voices, and their dental work. In 2018 nobody can exit the film without wondering at the rank tombstone teeth of the soldiers. Thank God Jackson didn’t give them digital orthodontics. Those crumbling teeth stoutly defend the truths of history in the face of Jackson attempts to conjure the cinematic effects of experience.

Dear Dr Nelson,

I reject utterly your statement today that the Australian War Memorial is the ‘one national institution in this country that reveals more than anything else our character as a people, our soul.’ Our national soul is embodied in more than just our experience of war, it is just as fundamentally rooted in our environment, our history of settlement, and our first peoples. It is expressed not only by our military actions but by our culture and our everyday lives.

I also reject utterly your demagogic rhetorical manoeuvre of immediately invoking the blood sacrifice of our soldiers whenever you are challenged. The blood shed and the traumas experienced were on behalf of our whole country, not just its military aspects.

I reject utterly your completely disingenuous statement, when asked about the enormous disparity between the income of your institution and other national institutions, that ‘as far as decisions that are made by governments in relation to other institutions, that is a matter for the Government,’ when you yourself are very close to the Government, and you must also be aware that your colleagues in other national institutions are suffering under the 2% so called ‘efficiency dividend’, such that they can  now barely do their vitally important jobs. Have you ever stopped to think, Dr Nelson, that the trauma of the wars commemorated in ‘your’ Memorial have their echoes throughout Australia, and are therefore also recorded in our libraries, museums, and archives?

In the end the size of the tab isn’t really the point, and who suffered the most isn’t really the point, the point, as you say, is ‘our soul’. What kind of soul do we want to make for ourselves within our hard won freedom?

Torch light on the Opera House

Salvation Army ‘War Cry’, Melbourne 1894

Heritage Council chair Stephen Davies is unable to issue a stop work order against the Opera House advertising projections of Racing NSW because light does not cause physical harm. Instead The Chaser projected Alan Jones’s phone number on the Supreme Court and NSW parliament from a moving car, while citizens disrupted the racing ads with torches. This David and Goliath contestation of public space has a fascinating history. In 1894 the Melbourne Salvation Army was just as aggressive as Racing NSW, but for the cause of Temperance. They used the latest limelight powered magic lantern to obliterate a schnapps ad on the side of a pub with a projection of Jesus and images from ‘The Rock of Ages’, while their band played hymns. 

While light does no physical harm, as anyone who works with projection knows, it completely redefines space, transforms mood, and rewrites meaning. The act of projecting on a building is strangely exhilarating, because a small act is ‘projected’, not just optically by the lens, but semiotically by the stored symbolic power of the building. 

Heritage values are created by lighting. Think of how the warm tungsten lights, which nightly bathe the newly cleaned sandstone facades of the public precincts of virtually all the world’s cities, have reshaped our mental image of those cities. And they can be destroyed by lighting. Fortunately, in the optical arms race, guerrilla action can still outgun the big boys.

Five Scenes for a Modern Prometheus

A video of the magic lantern performance I devised in collaboration with Elisa deCourcy, Alexander Hunter and Karen Vickery is now available for viewing online. We performed it at the ANU twice during September 2018, once in the Sir Roland Wilson Building at the Magic Lantern in Australia and the World conference, and once a week later in the NFSA ARC Theatre at the Frankenstein: Two Hundred Years off Monsters conference. It goes for about half an hour, and uses about sixty slides. I decided to hang it off Mary Shelly’s book because I knew we would be performing it for the Frankenstein conference. It was wonderful reading the book again after so long, and I picked out some choice quotes for Karen to intone at intervals through the five ‘scenes’, which begin in a scientific laboratory, and end lost in snow and ice, but otherwise have little to do with the story! I was initially going to commence with a moiré pattern chromatrope to set the dark mood, but I eventually decided to use the new chromatrope that Miheng Dong had cut from acrylic in the ANU Makerspace, working from a pattern coded by Kieran Browne. After that it wasn’t much of a leap to some microscopic slides of bacteria and bacillus from the Atlas of Bacteriology by Slater & Spitta, then after a ‘Flash of Lightning’ slide (Copyright T T Wing), with some great music effects from Alex, Elisa flickered up an anonymous slide of a monstrous skeleton using her fingers. We then dissolved to microscopic cross-sections of rectal cancer growths (!) originally used at the Westminster Medical School, which were also meant to look like aerial views of icy wastes. After Alex’s great music, Karen came into her own as we showed panoramic caricature slides dissolving into comic mechanical slides in the next scene. Her wetly mouthed responses to the slides as they came on the screen were fantastic. it was Elisa’s idea to project both of the Steward lantern simultaneously for a ‘tongue in ear’ sequence, and for a dancing skeleton sequence (with some skeletal EDM from Alex) during the next section of ‘monstrous’ mechanical slides. We used some temperance motto slides, a J W Beattie Port Arthur Slide, two slides from Jane Conquest, some hand painted slides, and an amateur double-exposed ghost slide for the next sequence, which required a lot of changing between carriers. For the final sequence we began ‘finger flickering’ between a group of slides which I originally thought were slides illustrating the Franklin North West Passage expedition of the Erebus, but which I now realise are simply illustrating ‘Arctic Phenomena’. We ended with my favourite slide from my collection, a hand painted slide of some Byronic figure roiling around in the snow, overlooked by a distant church perched high on an icy cliff. Elisa once again had the inspired idea of holding what I call our ‘Cardboard Ken Burns’, a piece of cardboard with a hole in it, in front of the lens, to ‘spotlight’ key elements of the scene. I couldn’t have done it with out Elisa, Alex and Karen, all of whom contributed inspired original ideas. The video was made by Amr Tawfik, who was able to handle the low light OK, and was able to give a good impression of the labours of Elisa, Karen, Alec and myself. The audience reaction to the first performance was good, we filled the room up with fog from a  fog machine before they entered, and they filled the basement room to capacity, and were well primed for the show. The audience reaction to the second show was more muted, for several reasons, the necessary intimacy of the performance was somewhat swallowed up by the larger space of ARC, and the audience was less primed as to what to expect.

Chromatrope at Mt Stromlo

On 20 April we performed this 130 year old chromatrope under the stars at Mt Stromlo Observatory. We projected it through a 130 year old magic lantern  onto the scarred wall of the shell of the dome which was built to house the 26 inch Yale-Columbia refractor telescope in 1955, and destroyed by the ACT Bushfires in 2003. Music Ben Keogh, video Clare Jolly. For Heritage in the Limelight: The Magic Lantern in Australia and the World.

Corrosive Colourisation

 

Peter Jackson’s colourisation of Imperial War Museum footage.

 

Three years ago, so the media release goes, the Imperial War Museum approached Peter Jackson, famous director of The Lord of the Rings, ‘to see what could be done’ with their archival film footage of the Great War. Jackson’s answer was to slow the footage to the frame rate at which it had been originally shot, remove scratches, grade it and sharpen it. All this is what any good digital restoration does. But Jackson then went on to add colour to it. This is not restoration, because something is added which was not there in the first place. And it is not even ‘enhancement’, it is destruction.

 

Any creative re-use of archival footage is generally to be supported, and purist approaches to some notion of untouched archival sanctity get us nowhere. But the wholesale colourisation of archival footage is becoming more and more common recently. Jackson is not the only film maker to claim that colourisation is essential to bring ‘neglected’ or ‘lost’ or “forgotten’ footage to new audiences. And his is not the only company with a digital colourisation process to sell. For instance this year Screen Australia’s documentary funding program supported Stranger Than Fiction Films to use a French company to colourise ‘pivotal moments in our nation’s history’ for SBS. So it may be worthwhile to take a step back and consider the long term impact on our historical consciousness of wholesale colourisation as an archival default. What is its effect on affect?

 

The director of the Imperial War Museum, Diane Lees, states the argument for colourisation: ‘what we want to do is to take film that is very often dismissed by audiences because it is black and white’. There seems to be two strands to this argument: colour will somehow appeal to young eyes put off by boring old drab black and white with its association with – yawn – school history lessons; and colour is closer to the ‘reality’ for which the original cameramen strove, but were prevented from achieving because the technology they needed was yet to be developed. Both arguments are wrong.

 
Colourisation is not a gift to young people, it robs them of visual and historical literacy. It diminishes their ability to appreciate the full and beautiful range of tonal and chromatic spectra associated with each decade’s intrinsic technology. The technologically immersed young clearly have no problem in choosing from amongst the 24 default Instagram filters, including several in monochrome, with all of their historical associations, so why is their discrimination not trusted by Jackson and Lees?

 

And is a digitally colourised frame, where colours from a pre-determined palette are arbitrarily overlaid in a paint-by-numbers fashion, closer to reality than the original 256 tones of grey? We may know the original colour of a uniform, or an epaulette; but somebody’s skin, or their wallpaper? We can all, now, have a little snicker at Roland Barthes who, writing as late as 1980, still couldn’t help himself thinking that colour was: ‘a coating applied later on to the original truth of the black-and-white photograph.’  For somebody like Barthes, who grew up when press photographs and films were overwhelmingly black and white and expensive colour was reserved for special portraits and fiction, colour was an artifice, a cosmetic like the kind used to paint corpses. Now the situation is reversed, for those who came of visual age amongst colour, black and white is the connotational accent, signifying a certain classical aestheticism, laid on top of the RGB substrata. This indicates the fluidity of the exchange between black and white and  colour. It is not just from an incomplete to a complete image potentiality, it’s an historical dialectic.

 

Even during the Great War itself, colour was perceived as a ‘lack’. When, in 1918, Australia’s War Records Section projected Paget Plate magic lantern slides at London’s Grafton Galleries (panchromatic emulsion exposed, and re-projected, through a three-colour matrix screen giving a pixelated colour image) they were rightly applauded as the first ‘real’ colour images of the War. They were recognised as ontologically different to the thousands of hand-coloured War photographs that already had been, and would continue to be, produced. (In 2016 the State Library of New South Wales held a wonderful exhibition of hand coloured Great War photographs from Melbourne’s Colart Studios.)

 

But anybody who has worked in the area of colour reproduction, Peter Jackson most particularly, knows that there is no prelapsarian urcolour waiting to be discovered. From Paget plates, to Dufay colour, to Kodachrome, to Technicolor, to the bling of today’s Canon or Sony firmware, all supposedly ‘natural’ colour is technologically sampled and replicated, and therefore of its time. Jackson is not returning what was lost, not clarifying what was muddied. He is just adding a supernumerary layer and obscuring the past with a chromatic corrosion from today. This is the first sin of historicism. Some colour profile has to be generated for the palette from which different colour values are assigned to various areas in the tonal image. The colourisation efforts I have seen so far project a vaguely retro palette back into the past — unlike today’s colour technology but also unlike any actual primitive colour technology of the past either — perhaps closest to Instagram’s ’Slumber’ filter.

 

Jackson says: ‘the people come to life in this film’. And that is the problem. They are not alive, they are dead. Allow us to meet them in their own technological time,  not in a fantasy of ‘presence’ which is really just a current technological effect.

 

Some of the news reports suggest that Jackson is even adding digital 3D (although perhaps, let’s be thankful for small mercies, they mean 2.5D) to the archival footage. The hyper realism of stereoscopic photographs was also an important part of the contemporaneous experience of the Great War. (For instance in Australia the Rose Stereographic Company produced thousands of stereo views of the War.)  But if it is true that Jackson plans to invent a new 3D effect within the archival footage, then the revenant automata manufactured out of the indexical template of the scanned film frames will even further divorce contemporary audiences from a profound acknowledgement of the significance of those who once lived within a specific past. They deserve to be more than just retro effects within the present.

Save Australia’s precious kitsch heritage before it is too late!

The Rolfoclasts with their attempts at Rolfoclasm are at it again!

Somebody stop them!

In 1986 Rolf Harris painted for Warrnambool’s Lighthouse Theatre a lovely mural in vivid tones of ‘outback red’ and ‘charcoal black’, presumably supplied by  British Paints. The mural, with its artful paint drips and edge-of-the-brush paradiddles, has roots reaching deep down through Pro Hart and Eric Jolliffe, picking up some hints of panel van on the way.

Yet through a primitive idolatorous thinking that comes from the dark ages, some equate the  painting of a  landscape by a pedophile with the act of pedophilia itself. Purely to expiate their own unresolved anxiety over the epidemic they equate a painting with the man, and want to erase both. They are putting pressure on the Warrnambool City Council, who have already voted to cover the mural up. That was never going to work. “Hiding the mural behind perspex is exactly what’s been happening with sexual abuse,” Warrnambool City Councillor Peter Hulin said. “We’re covering it up and pretending it’s not there.” But the iconography of  bush hut and blasted sapling seems innocent, is there something secretly encoded in the onanistic brushwork?

Of course covering the mural does nothing to address the issues that cause pedophilia. I’m sure I’ve gone to restaurants where paedophiles have worked, driven on roads they have built, and so on and so on. And covering a mural is one thing, erasing Rolf from my psyche is quite another. You only have to whisper ‘Caractacus’ in my ear and Rolf’s interminable version of Court of King Caractacus starts up all over again in my head. Once seen, Jake the Peg cannot be unseen. Will everybody who, like me, was a television addict in the 1970s have to submit to neurological erasure?

Rolf painting the mural in 1986

The mural before its cover up, now threatened with total destruction

 

Tintype of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

What a magnificent concoction of hocus pocus was mixed in today’s piece about a newly discovered tintype which may be, perhaps, of Billy the Kid. All the tropes are there: bought at a flea market for ten dollars; photographic experts supposedly dating the object to just a two year window of 1879 to 1880 (how so precise, exactly? one of these experts is a friend of my friend Craig Tuffin, and he doesn’t know either); then, from material connoisseurship, we swing to contemporary facial recognition software which supposedly picks Pat Garret and Billy the Kid’s faces out from the algorithmic line-up; finally the handwriting experts chime in with their confirmation. The ten dollar tintype may now be worth five million. The proud owner said what the narrative inevitably demanded he say: ‘One day it may end up at an auction house somewhere. We’ll see what happens.’ Meanwhile the smudge of the supposed Billy the Kid’s face, with it’s  doll-like splodges of pink hand-colouring on his cheeks, stare out at me from the iPad. And I feel like David Hemmings from Blow Up, staring back at the clump through my ridiculously ostentatious magnifying glass, wanting, just wanting.

Billy the Kid?