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The Digital, The Virtual, and The Possible: Riffing with Homay King on Virtual Memory

by Regina Longo

from Film Quarterly Fall 2015, Volume 69, Number 1

Homay King’s book, her second, is the kind that warrants more than one reading. But there is no awkward or dense prose, often a hallmark of theoretical texts that turn reading into an academic exercise. No, Virtual Memory: Time-Based Media Art and the Dream of Digitality welcomes more than one reading because it is so pleasurable: insightful, playful, and full of lucid ideas that are the author’s own. In fact, play is a word that appears frequently in this book.

King is not just synthesizing the words of the theorists—such as Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, Giorgio Agamben, Georg Simmel, Vivian Sobchack, and N. Katherine Hayles—with whose work she deeply engages throughout the book. She is, in effect, inviting the reader to play along. Her close readings of the time-based art of Christian Marclay, Agnès Varda, Victor Burgin, and Ming Wong encourage creative and generative points of connection between theories and critiques of time and potentiality embodied in cinema, the cinematograph, and the cinematic apparatus in forms that span the analog, digital, and virtual.

From the outset, King notes that Bergson and Deleuze will weave their way through the entire text, but she emphasizes that Bergson’s The Creative Mind—a text often overlooked by English speakers in favor of his Matter and Memory—is critical to her conceptions. King delights in the difference that her definition of the virtual can bring, that is, a creative, generative practice that still promises something new. As words, “digital” and “virtual” are ubiquitous. As concepts, the senses of being (actual/digital) and becoming (virtual/analog) allow King to examine the work of artists who also desire to experience what the digital has promised, but has not (yet) delivered.

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Just what has the digital promised? King does not approach this question obliquely. The first chapter of Virtual Memory focuses on the work of Alan Turing: a household name by now thanks to Steve Jobs, The Turing Project (Justine F. Chen and American Lyric Theater, 2012), The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014), and queer scholarship. King begins by queering the (A)pple, so to speak. Or, expanding the origin myth away from the literal and the obvious toward the generative and the possible. In this opening chapter, she discusses the long-standing rumor that the Apple Computer logo pays tribute to Turing. Steve Jobs and Rob Janoff, who designed the logo, consistently refute these rumors and insist that the apple is a reference to Newton, not Turing. And yet, this myth has become part of Turing and Apple Computer lore. King presents factual evidence to her readers that allows them to start with what they think they (might) understand about the rise of the digital, then twists and turns it, encouraging them to take a different approach. King demonstrates how Turing created games to tease his own mind and the minds of others, in order to push the limits of early computational theories and computing machines.

Situating her case studies of time-based media art within the realm of scientific and computational invention is a productive and clever approach. Yet, in the final analysis, the physical spaces of these films, videos, artists, and artworks are not what seem to have compelled King to study them. And why should they be? These artists are all pushing the conventional limits of form and time, certainly beyond the narrative conventions of mainstream cinema. King writes eloquently of a reconstructive mode that allows the artists to move between the form and the act—the “manipulable/digital of the hand/eye, and the (reconstructed) pixel” (90). Just as King sees the artists’ work as a form of reconstruction, so is her theoretical intervention a form of reconstruction, too.

Regina Longo: Throughout Virtual Memory you move between histories, theories, and practices, tracing a genealogy for the development of digital technologies beyond the purely technological. How does this relate to your formal and conceptual analyses of the visual works you discuss in this book?

Homay King: In 2009 I taught a seminar called “Transitional Objects: Between Old and New Media.” The title came from D.W. Winnicott’s Playing and Reality. I was trying to think of a way to talk about digital videos and new media artworks as halfway between imaginary and real, and halfway between something belonging to the self and belonging to the other, or the external world. I actually taught the seminar twice—once as an undergraduate seminar at Bryn Mawr, and once as a grad seminar at U. of Penn. We spent a lot of time with the work of Natalie Bookchin, who creates video installations that are made up of found footage from YouTube diaries and testimonial first-person films. They construct incredible narratives, for example about getting laid off from a job or being on medications. A socioeconomic pattern emerges when hundreds of different videos and voices are edited together saying the same things in the same way.

The Winnicottian framework was dropped eventually in favor of Henri Bergson and his concept of the virtual. I don’t remember exactly when it shifted or what prompted it, but it might have been related to the artworks, which always come first for me. The method follows from the material, not the other way around. Originally I had wanted to write about works that fall more squarely in the category of new media art or web art, and even video games. That changed over time.

Longo: Some of the themes you note in Bookchin’s work return in Chapter 6 where you examine the Occupy Wall Street movement. Upon entering the virtual world of Homay King, this was not a place I expected to go. This is part of what makes your book so much fun to read: you play with expectations, with the technical, the conceptual, and with words. I think this is precisely what a theorist should do. How would you define your concept of play?

King: In my “Transitional Objects” seminar as well as in other courses, I sometimes teach Roger Caillois’s Man, Play and Games. He begins with Huizinga’s notion of the magic circle—a time and place that is marked as separate from everyday life and in which a different set of rules apply. Play takes place in the magic circle. It could be a literal space, like a sports field. It could be a figurative space, as with children playing make-believe. Caillois includes mimicry among his taxonomy of play-forms, so film and the performing arts are part of his study. Ultimately Caillois finds that what we call the social is in a sense a kind of vast magic circle. Politics involves agonistic competition, chance, and role-playing.

So that’s my definition of play. But I think you are also alluding to something in my writing style, the occasional word play, humor, references to riddles and logic puzzles. I made one of the epigraphs a cryptogram, for example. I guess I share that affinity for word play with Alan Turing. Humor is social and culturally specific, so someone who enjoys puns and double meanings doesn’t, for me, fit the stereotype of the antisocial genius, which is how Turing had been in my view incorrectly portrayed (in The Imitation Game, for example).

I also want to write books that people will enjoy reading, that will retain all their conceptual sophistication without sacrificing either clarity or pleasure. Word play and humor are part of that. I like to read books that are a pleasure to read. For example, Lacan employs crazy world play and puns and Deleuze has a really wild prose style. But my favorite works from these authors are those where they are reading literary objects or media objects, for example Lacan on Hamlet, or Deleuze on Francis Bacon [Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, 2002] where he really digs into the distinctions between the digital and the analog. When another text is in play, it grounds things and it can be so illuminating.

Longo: You use words such as tease and riff to demonstrate the creative power of gestures and acts in time-based media art. Can you share a bit more about how visual artists such as Victor Burgin work with the conceptual motif of the refrain and how this explicates your theories of the dream of the digital?

King: The idea of the musical refrain is very important to the chapter on Victor Burgin’s work. There, I was trying to theorize a notion of repetition that is neither Nietzsche’s eternal return, Benjamin’s mechanical reproducibility, nor Freud’s repetition compulsion. The Deleuzian idea of the refrain is one way out of the recursiveness of those forms, the way they are ultimately stuck in time like a merry-go-round or broken record. Another way out is provided by Bergson, who, in a marvelous essay about the phenomenon of déja-vu, describes the experience of re-seeing a play one has already seen, where a fringe of virtuality surrounds the new experience and marks it as separate from the prior viewing. And finally, Burgin’s gallery videos, which are structured as loops, also provide an antidote to total repetition without difference, because their meanings are so densely layered that you can’t possibly view them the same way twice.

Longo: You engage and re-energize Bergson’s ideas that art, rather than science, gives us a sense of this movement of difference while showing the reader that technology is also a creative space of becoming. All of the visual works you examine are in conversation with—and inspired by—more conventional forms of cinema. How did you choose these objects of study?

King: Each one came to me in a different way. Varda was first: I published an essay about The Gleaners and I (2000) in 2007, which was in turn based on a conference talk from 2005. So I guess that means I have been thinking about these questions for ten years. Marclay’s The Clock (2010) was hugely important; it perfectly crystallizes this dialectic between the analog and the digital and helped me to define what I meant by those terms. The chapter on Occupy Wall Street was originally a one-off piece inspired by that movement in fall 2011. I later came to realize that it was in fact connected to the book and belonged there. Similarly, the chapter on Victor Burgin came from elsewhere, as an invited piece for an exhibition catalog. But as I began to explore his work—the newer pieces made with 3-D modeling software, his video loops, and his writings—it became clear that they were germane to the book project.

Longo: In Chapter 5, “The Powers of the Virtual,” you make a statement about cinema as a form of virtual reality, using Deleuze’s discussion of Orson Welles’s F for Fake (1973) to demonstrate that “[i]t is no longer a question of lying or telling the truth but of making images and stories that ask to be understood and taken seriously on their own terms, within the worlds with which they surround themselves” (140).

King: I do think the way Elmyr de Hory disappears into Picasso’s oeuvre when he paints a forgery is different from, say, anonymous trolls on the internet, or a Catfish (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, 2010) scenario where someone adopts a fake persona as part of a con game. Being anonymous does not necessarily mean disconnecting from the world or denying accountability. Certainly if Elmyr were to sell a painting under false pretenses, there’s nothing particularly inspired or creative in pulling off a stunt like that. But I think that in F for Fake, Welles is interested in much more than the stunt. He’s interested in the way that fictional reimagining can open up stagnant accounts of history or art history, that it can knock some life into forms that have grown too tired, rejuvenate worn-out narratives.

Longo: You claim that “contemporary artists and practitioners who use digital media have often rejected the dream of digitality, in many cases actively subverting it” (9). But you argue that this does not diminish the advancements of digital technology, nor does it negate their usefulness for artists and others. Meanwhile, it doesn’t free the artists, their artworks, or those who experience these artworks from “earthly, time-bound concerns.”

King: The digital dream—the Cartesian or silicon dream described in the book’s introduction—aspires to occupy a time and place that is fully separate from this world. There could be celluloid films that do this; again it’s not medium-specific. But the dream is “digital” in spirit. It involves an aspiration to be free of gravity, free of the past, free of matter. It isn’t a salutary way to imagine change. It’s about the will to power, or wanting to play god, to destroy the world and start over again from zero. Cinema’s indexical tie to the physical world and to durational time, whether we accept it as scientifically grounded or not, keeps film and analog media connected to our world rather than floating away from it. The digital, by contrast, wants to cut this tie.

Longo: You state that this Cartesian silicon dream of a virtual world that would free everyone from physical, sensory, and space-bound reality is a myth. Yet you show how cinema itself is a form of virtual world in which one can become immersed—a place where an artist like Ming Wong can play with these Deleuzian concepts in his brilliant engagements with classical Hollywood cinema and the European New Wave in Persona Performa (2011) can insert himself into other artists’ worlds and expand their oeuvres in the process. Should theorists distinguish then between the dream of the digital and the dream of cinema? Do artists and audiences want to?

King: They are two separate dreams. The virtual worlds that cinema creates are very close to the actual world. And I should clarify that one of the book’s main arguments is that even cinema made on digital equipment can be analog in spirit and vice versa: the argument is not medium-specific. “Cinema” in this more conceptual sense can help the audience to imagine change, to imagine that things might be otherwise. It can enact changes upon images and memories of things that we previously thought we understood completely.

This is why I prefer the concept of the virtual to the fake or false: it’s less about pulling off a trick and saying “gotcha!” than about saying “what if?” and thereby imagining how things could be otherwise.

This gets back to the idea of cinema as a form of virtual reality, which I think it definitely can be, in this fuller, more complex sense of the virtual that I try to elaborate in the book. It’s not a substitute or replacement for reality: that would be false reality, like the Matrix or a holodeck. That’s the dream of digitality: that you are matter-free, that you can fly through space, that nothing ever decays or dies. The meaning I want to give to the virtual is more subtle, much more Bergsonian. It’s a slightly detoured version of reality that doesn’t negate what already exists, but that suggests other ways it might have gone or might go in the future.

Longo: You are coming out of a prolific period. Your first book, Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Cinema, and the Enigmatic Signifier (Duke University Press, 2010), has just served as the inspiration for a landmark show that opened in May 2015 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, China Through the Looking Glass, for which you also wrote the catalogue essay, “Cinema’s Virtual Chinas.”1 With the show at the Met through August 2015 and possibly traveling after that, and Virtual Memory hitting the shelves in October 2015, have you been able to find a moment to think about what you will explore next?

King: My catalogue essay “Cinema’s Virtual Chinas” is a fusion of the two books. There is a principle implicit in Lost in Translation and Virtual Memory. For example, the China seen in Von Sternberg [Shanghai Express, 1932] or Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) is not just a fake or inauthentic China. They are virtual Chinas that are floating in their own kind of netherworld. A lot was written for that catalog essay that was not used in it. What will my next venue be? Destination unclear, journey underway.



Homay King
Virtual Memory: Time-Based Art and the Dream of Digitality

Duke University Press, 2015
$23.95 paper, $84.95 cloth, 216 pages
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