Phil Solomon’s “Empire”

A short essay on Phil Solomon’s digital film Empire, show recently at Views from the Avant-Garde at the New York Film Festival.

Phil Solomon’s Empire consists of a single evolving image derived from the computer game Grand Theft Auto IV. From a fixed, high angle view point we overlook an emblematic North American city, within which is a number of typical features. A centrally positioned, tall, art deco-ish skyscraper that closely resembles the Empire State Building dominates the scene. This is surrounded by a variety of shorter buildings, one or two of which have electronic billboards attached to their facades. To the right is a marina cum harbor, and beyond that an area of low-rise industrial sprawl, apartment buildings etc. Behind the whole scene is the sea, leading to the horizon, which lies a little below the mid point of the picture. Thus the scene is dominated by the sky, and it is this latter that will provide as much variety during the work’s 48 minutes as changes within the cityscape itself.

Solomon describes it as: “A re-make of Andy Warhol’s Empire from high atop the Manhattan Island of Grand Theft Auto IV (“Liberty City”), far from the madding crowd of thieves, cops, prostitutes and murderers down below. I hijacked a copter, leaped onto the rooftop of an adjacent building, spawned a scooter out of the thin air and then gingerly drove it to the very edge of the precipice in order to roughly approximate that familiar view from July 25-26, 1964. And then I put the controller aside and did exactly nothing for 24 hours (48 minutes in our world). A day of rest and bordered inaction.”

To deploy an over used and much-adapted term, the scene could be said to evoke the “industrial-sublime”, although this is tinged with an urbanite nostalgia for nature, evoked by the big, dramatic sky, to which we are constantly drawn by the left to right movement of passenger jets, which disappear behind the central building, never to reappear. This is one example of the numerous anomalies that animate the scene, and of which we only become aware because we are watching a game’s setting, that is, experiencing it in a way probably not anticipated or intended by its creators. This is perhaps the most interesting thing about Empire: it gets us thinking about what watching is in a variety of ways. The game’s creators have built a plausible-enough world within which the action can take place. To this extent they follow a movie-making ethos, in that there’s no point in lavishing time and money on details that no one is going to notice, as their attention will be elsewhere. The landscape is riddled with looping events, the plane-passings being the most conspicuous, because they are silhouetted against the sky, clear of any visual clutter that would render them less obvious. On another level, things change slowly, but in a lot of places at the same time, all the time. Thus, typically, one can fixate on an area of screen, the harbor say, then, after a couple of minutes look elsewhere and see that something one ignored for a minute or two has changed significantly. This process is exacerbated by the more or less constant appearance of fluttering shapes -birds or dead leaves- that emanate from somewhere in the middle of the image.

To this extent the work confirms what any film-watcher knows, which is that one misses much of what passes before one’s eyes, even in a cinema devoted to experimental work of the slowest changing kind. The experience of trying to juggle perceptions, to manage the changes one could witness, is not uninteresting, and the changes happen at a rate that is just about visible, in the way the movement of a minute hand can be just about visible at a certain scale. This precisely calculated rate further serves to make us conscious of our own visual-mental processes, but in the end one needs to consider the specificities of the work, this work, Empire: what I have described above could be just as easily and effectively tracked in a run of the mill psychology experiment. Solomon’s stress on the importance to him of Warhol’s film, and the comparisons made with it by other commentators, are misguided though, because the significance of Warhol’s film, its raison d’etre, lies in its observational nature (2). Empire is not observational, even if observations informed its making.

The significance of Warhol’s film is underpinned by its being a film of a real scene. From this fact stems the critical conjunction of pro-filmic, camera, black and white film stock, time and the apparatus, the latter not least in the way it puts particular demands on its audience (3). Actually, Warhol liked the idea that his audience could leave the cinema, come back and still find that not much had happened in the mean time. This is not the case with Empire, which is demanding in a very different way.  Warhol’s film establishes a dialectic with its viewer, because although “nothing happens” every frame is different, frame by frame changes in grain structure interacting with the very slow and subtle shifts in light and atmospheric conditions. The viewer is therefore involved in a repetitious process of trying to work out if anything has happened and if so what, at the same time as they come to an understanding that grain movements are also image shifts. This is very different from the experience of Empire, where the viewer is trying to track actually occurring changes in the depictions on screen. In this sense the viewer is a follower, whereas in Warhol’s film there is something like a feedback loop going on. Not least, Warhol’s use of black and white film stresses the image as a pattern of light movements. By excluding colour, emphasis is placed on image structure, on image as structure, since colour is not present to fill-in the detail and make the surface differentiations necessary for a convincingly illusionistic image. Black and white flattens things, emphasizing the image as generated, as opposed to recorded, as a matrix of interactions between grain, the modulations in the pro-filmic object, and light.

In Warhol’s film changes in the image have real, existential consequences, because those changes cause us to think about the adequacies of film as a way of representing the real world. Because the changes in Empire are artificial, there are no such consequences: the changes are simply changes to an image that is not an image of something really existing. This is not necessarily to say that there is nothing to be gained from such an image, so the question we want to ask is what does Empire, specifically, tell us about spatio-temporal representations?

There is considerable pleasure to be had from assessing the anomalous changes in light in the scene, the contrast ratio shifts when evening draws in, or the increasing play of light in the harbour as the sun climbs into the sky. One finds oneself bringing cognitive knowledge to bear on the scene, but this is always struggling additionally with the ever-changing array of phenomena. However, one’s sense of spatialities remains unchallenged, and changes to the pattern of light and dark are inconsequential because in the end the scene is invented. One could usefully compare this film with Monet’s paintings of the façade of Rouen cathedral. There the struggle to represent is inscribed in the work, explicitly so in its existence as a series of differences, each incomplete in itself. Indeed the work proposes that all paintings are unfinished, inadequate. The scene in Empire is always already complete, so that the shifts in light, contrast and colour are superficial in a strict sense, in that they leave unaffected the initial disposition of features within the scene. In this sense the image is dualistic, in contrast to Monet’s and Warhol’s, monistic images, where surface IS form, and therefore changes to surface are not superficial, but structural.

  1. http://www.gamescenes.org/2012/10/event-phil-solomons-empire-new-york-monday-oct-8-2012.html (accessed 17.10.2012).
  2. For example: http://cstults.net/index.php?/project/empire-phil-solomon-2008/ (accessed 21.10.2012).
  3. See Peter Gidal: Andy Warhol Films and Paintings, Da Capo Press reprint, 1991.

 

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