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Flatness: an interview with Shama Khanna

By Dan Ward

 Robert M. Ochshorn, Chewing Time (2013)

What were the initial intentions of the Flatness project, and how would you say those first iterations have reshaped your ongoing research, as well as future curatorial projects?

The project began as the theme of a film program I curated for Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen 2013 entitled "Flatness: cinema after the internet." I'd invited Oliver Laric, Anthea Hamilton and Ed Atkins to curate screenings within the program before I came up with the title, so the idea emerged through thinking about their work, and the other forty videos within the overall program. While Laric, Hamilton and Atkins each occupy very different positions—broadly, Laric's practice engages with the circulation of images throughout history and now on the web, Hamilton's sculptural and video works draw on the convergence of cultural materials within the compressed, hyper-historical space of the screen-based image and Atkins's filmmaking reflects on the thinness of high definition image surface—their work points to a shared language of the screen inherited from cinema and TV and now evolves through the dialogic space of the internet. I was conscious, too, that most of the works weren’t intended to be seen in the cinema - they were made either to be installed in the gallery or viewed on the computer (many of the works appeared in low-resolution so the image looked spectacularly flat!)—so I wanted to draw attention to the particularities of the auditorium setting and its linear format. Once the festival was over it made sense to put all the programs online, not only so a broader audience could engage with them, but also because several works I'd selected had originated there in the first place. Computer researcher Robert M. Ochshorn's commission, Chewing (2013), for instance, where all the frames of John Smiths' Girl Chewing Gum (1976) are played simultaneously in a specially programmed viewer, was only temporarily made into a video for presentation at Oberhausen, otherwise it exists as an interactive player. My intention was that the website could be a place where Ochshorn's sense of invention could be appreciated in the same space as the visual, audio-visual and written commissions. The web has become a site for artistic production and display but the tools programmers have access to, which set the protocols for this medium, mustn’t be overlooked both politically and artistically.

Currently Flatness takes the form of a website, a book and a succession of screenings. In a way, the project is activated by these live events and the discussions hosted through them. I really appreciate the physical space of the gallery and cinema, and I'm curious how the role of these spaces changes after the web has made many of their functions obsolete.

What were some of the initial ideas in producing the design of the website? I once heard you say it felt like a very subjective space—could you expand on that?

The design is a quotation from the 404 page which feels undesigned—it appears very simply, as if it was the most basic way to convey a message. In this sense the Flatness website suggests an interruption to normal services and at the same time shows you a ticking clock. I wanted to draw attention to the different temporalities of being on and offline while still being online. The font also harks back to a longer history of the net including those amateur Geocities websites which captured a diversity of interests within a very limited palette of effects.

Like Ubuweb the site is built in html. This mitigates against changes that are out of my control, such as Tumblr going offline, and gives me more options than hosting the site on Facebook both in terms of design, the imagery I can show and privacy. The site doesn't require a login, for example, and everything apart from the contributions is licensed under Creative Commons.

The design is subjective in the same way as the Geocities sites were. The curatorial statement is in the About section so the viewer could bypass it entirely, letting their curiosity for the different art forms behind each link on the homepage guide their experience, or reading of the site. As Facebook tries to become everything for everyone I really appreciate websites which are more partial and idiosyncratic. This might sound contradictory—a design that looks neutral whilst claiming not to be. But I've tried to be quite literal—to affirm the idea that I’m the guy pushing the buttons behind the curtain.

Do you think the presentation of artists work in the cinema alters the framing, conceptual or otherwise? You mention the cinema as being an obsolete space, yet also a reliance on events within a "public" forum to generate further discussion. Perhaps the cinema still has a collective address that the internet lacks as a form of distribution, or is yet to acquire?

Not necessarily. Of course work made in HD or film looks amazing in the cinema, and a lot of the works I’m interested in privilege high quality sound as well as visuals, so there’s no better format for those works. I suppose the fact that it's possible to show film on a variety of different scales says more about an expectation for the work to have that flexibility, rather than prioritizing one context over another. Having said that, there is a slight awkwardness to watching short films in the cinema, as if it's a warm up for a yet-to-come feature length movie.

Showing moving image works specifically intended for computer viewing in the cinema is a slightly different situation however on two accounts; conceptually it breaks the circulation the work is part of online (which is not to say it's a perfect, decentralized space in the first place), and secondly, the temporality or sense of "liveness" of the individuated space behind a laptop screen compared to the collective address of the cinema is affected by the switch. The two are closely related—it's apparent that the internet has stimulated interest in the cinema, from blockbusters to live feeds from performances at the Met. It's fascinating how cinema has been saved from obsolescence in spite of file-sharing and latterly Netflix which seem to accord to the gradual customization of experience through our personalized devices. Moreover, I wonder when new laws make it harder to organize together in public space in groups, how else could the live event of the cinema or gathering at a gallery be re-imagined? The will to protest as well as to like, tweet or instant message is self-evident; from Occupy, the Arab Spring, and the London uprisings in 2011, through to the demonstrations in Ukraine and HK and civil protests against police brutality in the States. Perhaps the practice of cinema going as a model has some potential to sustain this collective energy past clicktivism and spontaneous protest, which, like Occupy, can too easily be dismissed as politically ambivalent and historically content-less.

Online sociality has potential too, not just on Facebook. Special interest forums share affective encounters between members without the assumption of a physical analogue. I guess you could compare these fora to porn cinemas which are obsolete now; they seem to offer a similar type of intimacy. In my mind, screenings of artists' video could find a place between this and mainstream cinema. Curatorially, I think it’s important to acknowledge how people use screen media on a day-to-day to communicate and make, as well as to look. That's why I prefer to use a variety of existing formats outside the gallery.

Anthea Hamilton, Venice (The Kabuki Version) (2013)

The works screened as part of Flatness engage in a variety of ways with the topics you've mentioned, but the most striking similarity between many of the works is a particular mix of production values e.g. low-fi CGI, fast cutting and complex audio. Is there something in these aspects that are particularly productive when thinking through ideas about indexicality, circulation and new distribution formats?

Flatness is a materialist reading of how we relate to artifice in our lives. I'm interested in reflexive practices which address the means and conditions of production (which, as I have said, I also try to do in the curating of these works). In Flows (2013) by Jason Dungan, the movements of the camera give a sense of the artist’s physical presence both beyond the screen and nearby. As viewers we follow the patterns of what he's looking at, similar to how one can trace an artist's brush stroke on a painting.

This approach has its roots in structuralist filmmaking, a consciously amateurish (in the best sense of the word), analytical approach to filmmaking. In one sense, this artistic movement continues within YouTube, but also ends there as the photographic index of an image turns into information, a list of 1s and 0s, and thus the nature of the analysis also transforms. Flatness follows this paradigmatic transition, from the layers of materiality of artists' cinema—with bodies sitting together in the same room as the whirring film projector—to in-computer filmmaking with the potential for media to be transmitted easily and quickly to an unlimited online audience. This temporal shift is exemplified in the contrasting sense of duration of a finite recording and the constantly updated news feed, of which the latter I think creates the conditions for circular narratives and non-representational modes of expression.

In his recent book Anywhere and Not at All Peter Osborne writes about how the abstraction of exchange value from use value finds its equivalent visual form in the "infinite field" of the digital image. He suggests that this gives rise to "a simultaneous abundance of historical representations and a scarcity of forms of historical consciousness and experience." Through a materialist approach I want to recover the idea of a hand driving the machine, to expose the idea that our phones make us behave a certain way. Phones and drones aren't arbitrary or autonomous! It takes skill to program them, and reasonably, there should be a skill and a politics around using them.

This recovery of a "hand driving the machine" as you put it, is an important aesthetic problem. Some of the works in the Flatness project deal with this via a direct and "standard" filmic language, such Ein Neues Produkt (2011) by Farocki e.g. its use of shot-reverse shot in the first meeting, but this work sheds a lot of the structuralist production you mention. To expand on my previous question, could you talk more about the different strategies employed in revealing these social and political structures, and how they situate themselves in relation to a formal language?

Ein Neues Produkt is an incredible late work by Farocki, without whose films I don’t think we'd be having this conversation. For those who aren't familiar with it, the film offers a rare insight into the practice of future forecasting in commercial consultation whose aim is to optimize business processes and organizational structures, through solutions such as the open-plan office and flexible working. Farocki documents the internal meetings of the firm in such a matter-of-fact way that the situations seem absurd. The point at which one of the consultants suggests offering workers more time off as a way of saving the company money, for example, always provokes incredulous laughter from audiences but Farocki's unblinking eye persists to open out the consultants' bizarre but pervasive logic. In the place of narrative or a script, the speculative talk of his subjects is exposed as the construction within the film, detached from material reality and compassion. It reminds me of Chris Marker's Stopover in Dubai (2011), which also appears to present "just the facts" through the arbitrary viewpoints of CCTV. The two films seem to rest on incidental twists and turns in the real-time narratives without offering a conclusion, leaving interpretation open to the viewer.

I think the persistence of cinematic language is critical in order to contextualize developments in the moving image, as well as online experience in general. Or to Decontextualize them...As I mentioned previously, the sense of liveness as we engage in both is different, namely because cinema isn't navigable like live interaction online. Even in non-interactive situations such as YouTube tutorials and ASMR, the computer screen frames the viewer as the person holding the camera—there's still a sense of intention, agency or intimacy within an encounter that feels quite specific or personal. Across the multiple viewpoints of cinema however, the position of the viewer is more often abstracted from this one-on-one perspective. Significantly, it's the cinema which captures the condition of being watched which, as we know through the bravery of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, is an unwelcome but otherwise accepted part of our experience of being online. I often return to Chantal Akerman's 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles in which her repetitive use of the same fixed camera positions throughout the film typify this persistent gaze. The monumental way she detonates it through what happens in the film is perhaps a lesson we can take on to combat this apathetic acceptance of being watched we've succumbed to. Or, as you've identified in Farocki, we could learn to appropriate different points of view to undermine this power relation.

Flatness seeks to distinguish between a false intimacy of the screen where agency is instrumentalized, and other forms of expression and reception fostered through digital technology.

There are other less-visual and collaborative practices on the Flatness website which use structuralist techniques, such as Manual Labors, a long term research project exploring people’s physical relationship to work. Through experiments such as walking their 9 mile tube journey to work, and slogans such as "Refuse to Adapt," the project aims to locate a more embodied understanding of the structures of work and how one must negotiate them. To me it seems that immaterial labor has very definite material consequences in the world and effects on the body which Manual Labors interrogate brilliantly. Similarly to Flatness, Manual Labors operate as a web archive and a series of live events including reading groups and symposia. One particularly memorable meeting was held at the HSBC offices in Canary Wharf, where we made close readings of texts on the "rebel body" and "managed heart" by Silvia Federici and Arlie Hochschild. When art practice serves as a proto-form of affective labor—its passions and inventions captured as self-exploitation and entrepreneurialism—it becomes vital to discuss the ethics of what we do in order to imagine a role for art in the future.

Harun Farocki, Ein Neues Produkt (2012)

Curatorially, is a task you are forced to take up producing "neutral" or algorithmically unfettered online spaces to distribute work? There is something incredibly exciting about trying to create a distribution system in this way. What do you have planned for the future?

Not forced so much as fascinated by! I see my curatorial practice as a feedback process evolving over time, akin to the way learning and social relationships develop. As I've suggested, my values align with the potential of networks of exchange shaping the fabric of communication in society (over commodification, which tends to stultify this instinct). With this in mind I turn to the work of cyberneticists such as Norbert Weiner (who coined the term "cybernetics"), Gregory Bateson and Ella Siatta who study the science of control and communication in humans and machines, drawing conceptual parallels between engineering and the nervous system as related, self-reflexive networks. So far, Flatness as a neologism has contained this kind of distributive system within itself—i.e. there is no single or correct interpretation of the concept and it becomes a challenge to limit its scope.

Systems are far from autonomous however. Weiner was concerned about the power of Cybernetics, particularly in warfare where ethical human decisions become outsourced to Machines as is happening with drone technology. Here machines can accelerate the worst Aspects of the human character. Trolling and negging are other cases where feedback can be a dead-end, contributing towards an abject conformity.

Currently, I'm working on a way to make the project more decentralized and collective. A structure like this would allow me to carry on with my own particular research in collaboration with a number of key practices and materials, while being less controlling over how the project develops. The intention would be to broaden the range of responses that come back, slowing down and adding complexity to the process of automation from A to B we've come to expect. One way is to invite other researchers to curate their own sections of the site, and for them to invite people and so on. I can then imagine my work taking place in the overlaps, or points of exchange between the different networks created, as well as in the anomalies which are so often smoothed out by algorithms engaged in positive feedback. I agree with Siatta who said recently that the current system for producing beauty is not a very beautiful thing. I like this idea of an internal logic or integrity projecting affects. In the same way, Stephen Willat's proposition is that "[a] work of art could consist of a process in time, a learning system through which the concepts of the social view forwarded in the work are accessed and internalized." Flatness can be read in feminist terms of flat hierarchies and a shared surface, where essentialist categories are discounted in the formation of critically engaged and engaging socialities. Similarly to how Bateson talks about the artist being a self-aware cybernetic system, the components of a website, event or exhibition—the works, their mapping and visitors to the exhibition—could be one too.

Curated by Shama Khanna, "Flatness: Index," a screening of 16mm films and videos by Holly Antrum, Rose Kallal, Duncan Marquiss, Lisa Oppenheim, and Nino Pezzella, will be held tonight at Microscope Gallery (1329 Willoughby Avenue, #2B Brooklyn, New York 11237), at 7:30pm.

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