Dancing with Robots: Expanding the Sensorium in Viral Music Videos

What happens when cinema produces images that are no longer based on visual reproduction? Is it cinema, post-cinema, supercinema or is it better to call it, simply, noncinema? Music videos have become a fertile ground for audiovisual experiments in recent years, one of the more interesting strains being what we might call the production of nonhuman soundimages. For this paper, I will focus on two music videos — Echo Lake’s “Young Silence” and Radiohead’s “House of Cards.” These two videos are particularly interesting because they do not consist of recorded images but instead recorded movements or distances, respectively. These music videos suggest a new, different mode of image production: today’s cinema is often entirely non-reproductive but its images still move.

We can see this shift in cinema as an introduction of new technological bodies into the field of vision. When the body entered the field of vision in the nineteenth century, as Jonathan Crary has shown, visual representations chang alongside it and human perception is itself transformed (Techniques). We learn to perceive in new ways, ways that are as intimately bound up with social power as with aesthetic power: the power to produce equivalences. These are the shock rhythms of modernity diagnosed by Walter Benjamin and others.

But what equivalences are produced when the body in the field of vision, the body aligned with audiovisual technologies, increasingly grow nonhuman, when images increasingly grow discorrelated, in Shane Denson’s terms (“Crazy Cameras”)? This paper will argue for an expanded sensorium provided by new music videos, show how the process of mediation takes on significance in post-cinematic culture, and how music videos are part of a larger shift towards a non-human cinema. Such a nonhuman cinema incorporates technologies that go beyond human perception and in doing so broadens our sensory continuum.

Echo Lake, “Young Silence”

New technologies allow for new articulations of sound and image, as Steven Shaviro has shown (“Splitting the Atom”). With these new soundimage articulations come also new bodily articulations, new ways of experiencing embodiment. If we live in a perceptual continuum, where moving images co-exist on multiple platforms (Grusin, “Cinema of Interactions”), we surely also live in a sensory continuum that is currently being expanded in terms of what both sounds and images can do.

As an example, take Echo Lake’s video for “Young Silence.” While the video technically only shows the band members performing the song, the fact that they were recorded by the Kinect camera renders the entire experience different. The Kinect camera, used for the Microsoft Xbox video game system, does not record images like a conventional camera. Instead, the Kinect recorder employs both an infrared laser projector and an active pixel sensor with a lens to record movements. These movements are then translated into images using software designed by Microsoft

I used the term “translation” here in the actor-network-theory sense. Michel Callon states “translation focuses on the process of mutual definition and inscription,” translation “extends the traditional definition of action,” and “the elementary operation of translation is triangular: it involves a translator, something that is translated, and a medium in which that translation is inscribed.” (“Techno-economic Networks” 143) The translator is technological assemblage of the Kinect recorder combining infrared laser projector, active pixel sensor, lens, software, and more. The Echo Lake band members’s movements are what is translated, and the images that we see are the medium in which those movements are translated.

The content of the images, the band members’ performance, is so conventional that it almost renders the video itself conventional. Yet the images themselves have a haunting strangeness to them that both estranges our perception and renders our perception anew. We are not used to seeing such images and the movements and lines make us aware of the very act of seeing moving images. If cinema is truth twenty-four times per second, as Goddard would have it, or the act of “satisfying our appetite for illusion by a mechanical reproduction,” as Bazin would have it (“Ontology” 7), then this is not cinema. “Young Silence” has more in common with Benjamin’s camera operator as surgeon slicing into the human body than conventional cinematic realism.
Our perception and experience — our sensorium — is translated into a new and alternate register and modality than previously. Sticking with actor-network-theory, we can argue that our senses become articulated in new ways, adapt to the new audiovisual forms that emerge with noncinema (“Body” 209). Such articulation, however, does not suddenly manifest wholesale but emerges slowly as a learning process. “Young Silence” produces new articulations of space and time that are cut off from the conventional mode of image production, but in so doing their video allows us to see a new spacetime that we did not previously have access to. We find the beginnings of a new, technological-inflected sensorium.

Radiohead, “House of Cards”

An even more radical form of music video and nonhuman images is evident in Radiohead’s “House of Cards” video. Recorded primarily with LIDAR scanners, the video renders objects and bodies only to have them dissipate. Similarly, Thom Yorke’s head is recognizable in its rendered form but several glitches distort and deform his head. The video thus enacts the tension between digital recording and production methods and human analog perception.

A LIDAR is a form of 3D scanning emitting laser light pulses and measuring the reflected pulses to produce 3D maps. LIDAR itself is a portmaneau of light and radar, although some use the acronyms “LIght Detection And Range” and “Light Imaging, Detection, And Ranging.” There are different types of LIDAR devices with sensors of various sensitivity, depending on the desired resolution and area surveyed. Predominantly used for geographic surveys or self-driving cars, film and video units have begun using LIDAR devices, primarily for their novelty value. Tony Scott used a LIDAR device for Domino and Deja Vu but layered the renderings on top of conventional footage, producing more conventionally accessible images.

For “House of Cards” we only get the data visualizations of two different LIDAR devices, one with good resolution and low range, and the other with poor resolution and long range. The renditions, such as colors, are essentially arbitrary and do not reflect any profilmic elements.

Specifically for the recordings of Yorke’s head the production team attempted to distort the laser recordings by putting various objects in front of him, such as glas with oil or water running down it, throw feathers or place reflective surfaces in front of him. These different obstacles deformed the recordings and enabled strange renditions. Essentially the renditions are renditions of glitches and failures in the software, attempting to reproduce shifting and changing distances. Using the LIDAR devices in ways that they are not meant to be used deforms the renditions. We come up on a technological limit, which we can call noise, but much like feedback distortion, the noise is the desired aesthetic effect. The attraction of the lidared Yorke-head is its unusual mediated appearance, the way the images present us with something new and previously unseen.

The other LIDAR recordings of houses and people partying morph into each other and dissipate. The dissipation resembles pixels blowing away on the wind, suggesting a dematerialization that is often associated with digital ontology. Similarly, the morphing together of houses and bodies is done with conventional compositing software, but the flattened ontology suggested by morphing together houses and bodies is revealing. While visualizations are always human, much in the way that Massumi argues that the analog is superior to the digital and the digital is inaccessible to our senses (Parables 133), some visualizations strain their own accessibility. “House of Cards” defamiliarizes perception by wrecking, dissipating, or morphing the images that are produced by the LIDAR devices.

There is an unbearable lightness to these images in the way everthing melds and flies away. In so doing, “House of Cards” presents a different variation of what Sobchack identifies as obscuring the effort of animation as a mode of production (“Animation and automation” 384). “House of Cards” intensifies this obscuring move by making all objects and bodies dissipate and replace each other. Even Yorke’s faciality — a convention in music videos to capitalize on the recognizable celebrity status of the performers — is blocked and obscured. “House of Cards” is not exactly animated as much as it is rendered visualizations of recorded data. Of course visual design and decisions went into the production but we remain in the realm of translation. The video’s fascination with new imaging technologies obscures the modes of image production but at the same time attempts to renew perception.

In this way, “House of Cards” remains on the side of what Sobchack identifies as a contemporary interest in the posthuman (378). Considering the difference between conventional animation and its images, we can go further and say that “House of Cards” seems more interested in the nonhuman. The producers do, in some small way, cede agency to all the objects they put in front of Yorke’s face, since they do not know how the rendition will turn out. Again we find the ontological flattening between objects and bodies, suggestive of a larger turn in what we are here calling noncinema.

Life, Animacy, Noncinema

Cinema brings things to life; that has been a foundational component since its inception. Therefore, there is nothing immediately unusual about the integration of new technologies that produce movement, nor that animation is used to produce new, estranging images. Both music videos suggest a kaleidoscopic perception that falls into a long line of strange articulations of space and time, most often explored in art cinema or near-art cinema, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. Scott Bukatman has traced the lineage of these kaleidoscopic images and suggests that they are residual forms of Gunning’s attractions and astonishments. For Bukatman, these kaleidoscopic images are part of a renewal of perception that visual forms constantly attempt at producing (Mattes of Gravity 115).

We expand the boundaries of the known but we do so in union with technologies; our perception becomes increasingly machinic because these images are not reproductions, are not analog, are not anthropomorphic in any way. LIDAR and Kinect images do not have an analog to human perception. Instead, their images are produced through software translation that is ideological in entirely new ways than celluloid and aperture.

As Edward Branigan has pointed out, anthropomorphism as an analytic category is a matter of how much a camera or shot simulates human embodiment (Projecting a Camera 37). But as cameras and shots stop simulating human embodiment anthropomorphism breaks down as an analytic category. No longer do shots move in ways that humans can move, nor will cameras record in ways that humans can see or hear. But close-ups and slow-motion images never moved or perceived the way humans do, which is why human perception is reconfigured. What Branigan misses in his model is not that anthropomorphism never existed as analytic category, but that the category was always a particularly cinematic form of anthropomorphism.

We are back to equivalences: that we ever thought that the camera was anthropomorphic was simply because we had equated the camera — or what we might better term the film body — with the human body, after a period of shock and estrangement. In other words, what used to be a decidedly nonhuman body, early cinema’s film body, became integrated into and equated with the human body. All the estranging aspects of cinema were minimized, what Tom Gunning refers to as “tamed attractions,” to produce a narrative cinema (“Cinema of Attraction”). But the new generation of music videos do not simulate human embodiment in any way, nor are they in any way tied to narrative structures as Vernallis has pointed out (Unruly Media). If cinema became tamed and anthropomorphized in the same shift to a predominantly narrative cinema, the non-narrative thrust of music videos enables soundimages to become unruly again, which means that they also turn nonhuman.

What connects these different music videos are the ways in which they expand the boundaries of cinema by integrating new image technologies that do not record profilmic reality in conventional ways. Rendering and animating movement and distance are slowly taking over from painting with light as the guiding notion of how to produce images. What matters is that our sensory experience broadens and more non-human experience is brought into our human realm. While these music videos indeed appear non-cinematic, they will not remain so for long. The tighter such image technologies become integrated into cinematic productions, the less they will appear as estranging or renewing·

Massumi is right when he argues that the analog remains a fold ahead of the digital (143). What he fails to fully recognize — and cannot recognize at the time of writing, as he himself points out — is the extent to which the digital increasingly has taken on aspects of the virtual. Not because the digital has somehow moved on from its probabilistic mode, but because our analog sensorium folds the digital into itself. The digital and the analog are always articulated together, as he argues, but in so doing we assume the shape of the digital as much as it assumes our shapes.

More than anything, that is the equivalence that these music videos suggest: that animation, and mutability are part and parcel of not just new modes of image production, but of new ways of living. Our fascination with these new technologies is what allows for their folding that broadens our sensorium. But through this fascination, folding, and broadening a corporeal equivalence is established between a non-cinematic body and ours. The animacy of the non-cinematic body colonizes part of our bodies’ liveliness; not by reducing our liveliness so much as articulating our liveliness as a form of mutability. These non-cinematic images transform so easily and smoothly, which produces a similar desire in us. Our sensibility and senses increasingly take on the form of non-cinematic images.