#43 by Joost Rekveld
The images in the film #43 are generated by systems in which
the pixels are agents that are, in some respects, comparable
to organic cells. These systems are bumped into motion by
disruptions that cause a difference between some pixels and
their neighbours. These miniscule differences become seeds for
processes of decay and growth, an imbalance that embodies a
store of energy for the system as a whole, similar to electrical
potential. Under some circumstances the cells in the system
feed each other so that oscillations or other kinds of order are
produced spontaneously, sometimes stable in themselves,
sometimes feeding on noise to stay active.
This film is part of a long-running exploration of algorithms
that are based on propagation and local interactions. Originally
triggered by an encounter with simulations of how nerve impulses
organise themselves into oscillations in tissues like heart muscle,
for example, the project has since expanded to include an interest
in the more general emergence of patterns in time and space
out of homogenous starting conditions. These explorations are
inspired by a set of ideas from biology and mathematics that first
came to prominence during the development of cybernetics in
the 1950s and 1960s, and that have since evolved into more
recent manifestations such as catastrophe theory, complexity
theory and artificial life.
The composition of this film was influenced by the work of
logician G. Spencer Brown, who wrote his Laws of Form in 1969.
The book is a wonderful account of a new kind of logic that lends
itself especially well to describe the seeming paradoxes of selfreference.
Interview with Joost Rekveld by Martijn van Boven
MB What are we actually watching in your vertical film #43?
JR What you see are the processes that run in a computer simulation. Pixels are the actual elements and they react to neighboring pixels. It is classic, lots of people are interested in complexity. But in this film I have worked with a very specific class, where you have regular processes which are somehow fed by noise. What you have is something analogue to cells that pick up energy from the environment and use it to sustain themselves. It is a kind of oscillation that sustains itself by sucking up the noise from the environment, which I find is a very beautiful metaphor or a principle. So I have set up a couple of these situations which are slightly different, tuned to different types of images, and I kicked them into motion. All the chapters start with a white rectangle, a square, and all the images afterwards I generated, especially the edges. When one part is white and the other part is black, this difference sets the processes in motion. Basically, I have put some pixels on in the beginning and there is a little bit of noise that you can’t really see but it is there, which feeds the energy source of these situations.
MB You have mentioned briefly some aspects of biology, mathematics, cybernetics that influenced your thinking about this film. You also reference G. Spencer-Brown. Can you tell me something about that?
JR There is a book by Spencer-Brown called Laws of Form. It is a book on logic and it is so transparent that it is hard to see whether there is anything really there. [Laughs] You read it and you say: OK. One and one is two. OK. I had to actually read around it to realize how very interesting it is. There are two links to the systems I am using in this film. He talks a lot about feedback, he logically develops it, and it is very well suited to describe paradoxes for instance. If you have a paradox like I am lying, it is a self-referential statement, so it is true or not true – but if it is true it is not true. You have these cycles which are very similar to the things in a feedback and negative feedback. The other aspect is that his logic is a graphic logic. It doesn’t talk about zero, one, true, false; it is making distinctions on a piece of paper. And that is very much linked to this idea of making distinctions on the screen of course. These relationships are not very direct, it is more an inspiration, but I am thinking it would be great to make a film on this book. [Laughs] I really don’t know how that would work. If it would, it would be an interesting film.
MB Did you think about the vertical aspect before making a film or would the film be the same if it would have been horizontal?
JR I didn’t really think what can I do specifically for the vertical format. But it is choices you make all the time which are very different if this would have been a horizontal film. In that sense I would not consider showing it horizontally, even if it is abstract. I don’t think it would work. On the other hand, with a similar setup I could make a horizontal version of this film. I came to realize what I like about these algorithms, these kinds of systems: you start a process by making a distinction between a part of the image and another part of the image. I have used that in lots of different formats – normal projection, palm-top, in the theater... So because these algorithms start from this kind of distinction the screen is the basic distinction. I am really thinking of how I can relate to it more. These chapter-rectangles I start with have a relationship to that.
MB How did you edit the film?
JR I never really edit very much. It is how I work and it is something that hasn’t really changed since I started making films. I do lots of experiments and I think what kind of structure could fit the material. Then at some point I make a skeleton time structure. Then I make sequences that fit this time structure. The editing at the end is really tweaking a little bit, the beginnings and ends. The structure of the film is sort of zooming in on how the oscillation starts and sustains itself. That is the drama, you could say, and that is divided over different chapters.
MB You also made a soundtrack for this film. Can you tell me a bit about that?
JR When I started making films my idea was that I would also make my own soundtrack. In my very first film #2 I made both image and sound. I also made some soundtracks for other people. I was working in an analog studio at that time quite a bit but I did actually enjoy being there. I like very much the idea of composers and those methods. I started applying these ideas to my films. For a long time I made silent films and then I started working with composers again to have a dialogue with sound. This is now the first time in a really long time, twenty something years that I did my own sound. I was experimenting for a while in using soundscape sounds with abstract images because it situates the images in a way which is much more close to how I think about these processes. It is not a glimpse in some sort of abstract mathematical virtual reality somewhere far away, but it is perhaps a different look on things which are here. By using this kind of soundscape you get lots of associations. But it does something even if there is no way you can actually logically connect an image to sound. It situates it in a real environment. There are two videos by Steina and Woody Vasulka Reminiscence and Telc. The images are generated from video and then transformed to an abstract scape with video synthesizers they used. But the sound is just direct take from the camera. Those pieces I like. It is completely fascinating. You see stuff happening and what you hear are sheep, creaking boards in the floor... I think it is a very interesting tension.
MB You are writing your own software?
JR Yes. I have started doing that quite a long time ago. I used to made films where I built mechanical optical machines. At some point I realized that I want to do a lot of things that are too complicated to do in a mechanical way. You can better write a software. It is very similar. Instead of having computer controlling optical machine, I have computer controlling a piece of software. In that sense, working method for me is quite the same. When you work with real machines it is always unpredictabilities and things which are not straight. With these complex systems you have lots of things like that too. To a certain level I am in control, but in lots of situations not...
MB But you are also surprised by the results...
JR Yes, definitely! I started writing my own software environment which I can use for live things too, to render images. Now you see the film #43, but I made live performances using similar algorithms, and also projects for V2 like Palm-top theatre... For me it is also new to develop things by doing all kinds of small things instead of waiting ten years in hiding and then there is a Film. I actually quite enjoy doing that.
MB What did you think about printing your work to film? You used to work with celluloid a lot…
JR Before I have started working with computer-generated images in the direct sense I always did lots of different tests on film. In some way I was more aware of how the material was. It is always surprising that some aspects of these images when translated become really quite different. After the first screening of the film you always have to get used to what it has become and also realize that some things are different than you have made them. But that is something you know when you are making it, that it is not going to be the same. I realized when I saw #43 it was a very fragile film because the details are so small. And it was really made possible with this fantastic projection setup and the knowhow to do it. I think in a regular cinema it would be quite hard to show something like this.
MB Commissioned films are pretty rare in the experimental cinema. This project is also in that sense going a bit outside the usual. How did you feel about that?
JR It is a second film I made as a commission. What I like about it is you get a very definitive format – a deadline! [Laughs] What is good about it is that it also excludes lots of things. I am quite happy to work eight years on a film and completely follow my own logic and not any external concerns. On the other hand, if you work on a theatre project for instance you are one gear of the big machine. I really like those differences. I think it is really refreshing to have rules: it is big, it has a different ratio, it has to be finished in three months… [Laughs] I find it liberating because you can actually try lots of things in a very short time.