Stan Portus is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in C Magazine, Ossian Magazine, Photomonitor, Emotional Art Magazine, Design Exchange Magazine, Review 31 and others.

Metahaven: Digital Tarkovsky
Emotional Art Magazine

Book review

This review first appeared in the third issue of Emotional Art Magazine that was themed around ‘Future Fatigue’. The magazine was edited by Chris Hayes.

Andrei Tarkovsky may seem far removed from the modern day experience of smartphones, Instagram, and the near constant proclamations of diminishing attention spans. But in a new book from Dutch design duo Metahaven, Digital Tarkovsky, they want to make the case that our modern tech experience is in fact deeply Tarkovskyen, and is a new form of interface-based cinema. Metahaven’s opening gambit for such a claim is simple: in the US, the average time an adult spends on their mobile is two hours 51 minutes, just 8 minutes longer than Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). In China, the average time spent on a mobile is 4 minutes less than the film. They suggest you may even be reading Digital Tarkovsky on your mobile. I could only get hold of the e-book.

Metahaven identify several aspects of Tarkovsky’s cinema that is reminiscent of people’s experience of platform-based media, experienced in the ‘badlands’ of technology, outside the strictures of authoritative media, or cinema with a capital ‘C’. For Metahaven, Tarkovsky’s cinema can be characterised as dreamlike, lacking in explicit plot, preoccupied with the passing of time, and reflective of contemporary media’s nonlinearity. Tarkovsky’s films often feel like patchwork, a cinema that makes people feel the measure of things, and like time spent on mobile phones “we are drawn into watching for no real reason.”

The form of Digital Tarkovsky is reflective of its subject. Analysis of Tarkovsky’s films comes to exist alongside breakdowns of concepts around time, how cinema can be understood, and cutaways that take the reader into a script that operates as a casual accelerant to Metahaven’s more rigorous theorising, and a means to address the reader in the second person: “You remember the future as it once was: Internet time.”

The book operates as assemblage, smoothed over by ‘thus’ and ‘therefore’, into a slickness that Metahaven seem to want to see in people’s digital existences. This in some ways comes as little surprise when considered alongside Metahaven’s own filmic work, which has itself been called Tarkovskyen. Metahaven’s film The Sprawl (2016) seems now like a nascent embodiment of many ideas put forward in Digital Tarkovsky. By bringing together found media, and their own interviews and footage, The Sprawl aimed to show the same uncertainty that characterises modern media consumption. The Sprawl exists as a feature film, multi-screen installation, and as a string of YouTube clips too, reflective of the breakdown of cinema across different media platforms that’s put forward in Digital Tarkovsky.

Metahaven’s work exists in a longer history of artists and theorists trying to make sense of media saturation, and the ability of individuals to record and circulate their own media. Digital Tarkovsky is, unsurprisingly, indebted quite heavily to Hito Steyerl’s concept of the “poor image”, but seems to bear a greater resemblance to Eyal Weizman’s “image-complex”. Image-complexes are built through the relations between multiple — and sometimes hundreds — of images. Understanding events through image-complexes is an “active practice that requires construction” and is the methodology used by Forensic Architecture to unpack how often atrocious events unfolded through images and video footage.

In the foreword to Steyerl’s The Wretched of the Screen Franco Berardi writes, “history has been replaced by the endless flowing recombination of fragmentary images.” To construct through image-complexes is to try understand history within this flow — or, at times is just an effort to exist within it. To circulate imagery through hardware in the form of phones is to add to the flow too. 

Although this experience is markedly of the 21st century, Harun Farocki and Andrej Ujică’s Videograms of a Revolution (1992) points towards an earlier form of this. The recording of the Romanian Revolution on handheld cameras by members of the public offers an early example of how the visual recording of events and the making of history are intermeshed.  Rahib Mroué’s The Pixelated Revolution (2011) can be seen as an internet-age equivalent to Farocki and Ujică’s film. By compiling footage of the Syrian Revolution, Mroué shows how in the absence of journalists, protesters come to provide the narration of the event, and how the devices people used came to alter interaction with what was happening. Mroué believes those who filmed the events of the Syrian Revolution came to operate in a semi-fictitious space: the aim of a sniper viewed through a phone “appears to be in a film — the victim a spectator to their death.” The bullet will not come through the screen.

With a similar desire to understand the unfolding of a revolution, Lara Baladi collected footage from Tahrir Square of the Egyptian revolution in 2011 that she found on the internet. Baladi presented her ongoing archive in several forms soon after the Tahrir Square protests. Turning the found footage of such events into artworks so soon after has been seen by some as troubling. There is almost a belief that things must settle, or there should be some temporal distance before processing what has occurred. But why must a desire to comprehend be delayed? And when the information that is circulated on the internet can seem to disappear, and the political climate can shift so quickly, why must artists like Baladi wait? In fact, how can they wait?

One review of Digital Tarkovsky says that Metahaven paint a landscape in which we “cannot help but exist.” Can we move beyond and out of the “techno-political” forces Digital Tarkovsky takes “as a given” and describe as “inescapable”? There almost seems to be an ambivalence towards this new cinematic experience, as if an endgame has been reached where we must accept the platform-based image world in which we exist. Whereas Steyerl’s poor image and the work of artists such as Baladi mark an empowerment of individuals through the dissemination, collection, and presentation of media, Digital Tarkovsky points towards a future that appears more sinister. In the final moments of Digital Tarkovsky Metahaven write “…life is always cinema. But who is the director?”

This feels like the logical question to ask at the end of a book that frames contemporary interaction with technology as cinema. But conversely it reveals the sensation that sits beneath the surface of Digital Tarkovsky, and the psychosocial climate Metahaven tentatively move towards revealing, even if they do so with some trepidation, and never quite let it rupture the surface. Mroué says in the performance iteration of The Pixelated Revolution that despite the power of the image in the Syrian Revolution, there was also an awareness that “images are not enough to achieve victory.”