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Aesthetic Features in

Digital Imaging:
Collage and Morph
by Yvonne Spielmann

Taking as a starting point the shift in the arts that is caused by new technologies,
this essay questions how we may consider the aesthetics of digital arts. A vari-
ety of metaphors, such as hypermedia, hybridisation, even digital “wave” or
“revolution,” are common in the media debate to characterize the realm of the
digital that has evolved from computer techniques into an encompassing cultural
phenomenon. This variety of terms is a reflection of the current discourse that
tries to comprehend and communicate the challenge of digital technologies that
has transformed the production processes of audio-visual media, and has ex-
panded the methods of distribution and the access to different media in domestic
and public spheres. This discourse becomes particularly controversial when digital
imagery that results from the reworking and merging of different media images
—for example when photographic, cinematic, and electronic elements are brought
together on the basis of the digitally encoded image—are equally described as
intermedia, hypermedia, hybridisation, or multimedia. This recent debate dem-
onstrates the difficulties in coming to terms with new technologies and with the
ways in which different media interrelate. Briefly, what happens is that new
forms of “mixed image” emerge, causing a shift in the nature of the image itself.

Yvonne Spielmann teaches Media Studies and researches video art in the Depart-
ment of Art at the University of Siegen, and is currently a Fellow at the Society for
Humanities at Cornell University for the year 2000-01. Her books include Art and
Politics of the Avant-Garde, editor (Frankfurt/Main, 1989), The Concept of the Avant-Garde
(Frankfurt/Main 1991), and Intermediality: The Systems of Peter Greenaway (Munich,
1998).

WIDE ANGLE V O L . 2 1 NO. 1 (JANUARY 1999), pp. 131-148. 131


© OHIO U NIVERSITY SCHOOL OF FILM
I argue here that there is no coherent discourse on the interrelation of analogue
and digital media images, nor has the impact of cinematic aspects on the form
and shape of digital imagery been clearly worked out. Much of the debate about
“new” technologies focuses predominantly on aspects of discontinuity (such as
issues surrounding the complex and complicated dimensions of digital access,
storage, and manipulation), and on concerns about continuity (as older analogue
features are incorporated and expanded into the digital, demanding a redefini-
tion and reworking of forms and traditions). Amazingly, there seems to be little
interest in a comparative analysis of analogue and digital features in moving
and non-moving images that also considers an historical analysis. Moreover,
the debate on digitality in cinema mainly discusses editing systems and special
effects, with an emphasis on technical instruments and tools, with less attention
paid to aesthetic strategies and how these shape the image. The aesthetic
dimension of digital imagery or the specific “quality” of imagery in the digital
is little discussed, even where the debate explicitly focusses on visualization.

For example, William Mitchell’s argument that the digital image “blurs the cus-
tomary distinctions between painting and photography and between mechanical
and handmade pictures”1 is often cited and generally accepted. The identification
of “the essential characteristic of digital information,” namely that it “can be
manipulated easily” simply because it is “a matter of substituting new digits of
old,”2 depends upon this crucial technical distinction. However, this argument
does not help to explain how basic technical characteristics effect aesthetic
implications in recent media art. To conclude, most of the discourse on film and
media auspiciously regards novelty in digital cinema as limited to the introduction
of digital techniques to analogue media, whereas an analysis of the interrelation-
ships between analogue and digital imagery is rarely considered.

In opposition to this current discourse, as exemplified in Mitchell’s view on the


digital, I suggest a discussion that focuses on a comparative analysis of the his-
torical development, coexistence, and differentiation of visual media. I would
rather raise questions such as: on what level and in what forms could the specific
elements of analogue and digital eventually interrelate, and how do digital aes-
thetics fundamentally differ or not from analogue aesthetics? I seek to gain insight
into the similarities and differences between analogue and digital forms of the

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image, and to discuss images in which different media elements are interrelated
and combined into a new form of image. Tellingly, these “mixed forms” of the
image may show us which elements of the analogue will be continued or not
continued in the ongoing development of digital arts.

This reworking and transformation of elements from previous technologies


constitutes novelty in the digital, and can be considered a kind of paradigmatic
shift—neither a breakaway that eliminates contextual references, nor a mere
extension or redefinition of existing media. The challenge of the digital is to
reshape the aesthetics and the function of the arts in relation to specific media
because only the digital has the capacity—as opposed to all analogue media—
to build a dialectical relationship between analogue and digital.3 From this
standpoint we should look closely at the ways in which artists use digital tools
to access, connect, and transform elements taken from earlier media arts, for in
so doing they push the limits of what can be reasonably done in analogue (such
as the quality of light levels, the number of visual layers, and the possibilities
of reverse images).

In short, when analogue and digital techniques converge—in particular in


composite images such as collage and morph—the resultant imagery embodies
highly complex features that illustrate the different technical foundations that
result in different aesthetic strategies.

Incoherence and Coherence

With regard to visual arts, particularily images, the comparision of the analogue
and the digital through digital image processing causes a shift in the notion of
the whole image. This shift is especially visible where the merging of media
such as painting, cinema, television, and video results in a mixed image, or more
precisely, an intermedia form. I use the term “transformation” to describe the
different modes of merging into intermediality. For example, when the merger
involves elements of moving images (film) and of static images (photography)
that are contrasted to each other in the form of another medium—in a com-
puted image—the transformation builds a connection between two incoherent

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forms (dynamic and static) into a new visible form. As I will explain later in
this essay, forms such as collage and morph best express an intermediate trans-
formation (and thus the points of convergence between analogue and digital)
because they are in themselves incoherent and can make different layers or
different directions of the image visible.

In analogue media the concept of intermediality means that separate elements


taken from (historically) differently developed media (such as painting, photog-
raphy, and film) are interrelated in such ways that diverse and heterogeneous
elements are transformed into another form of image. Thus, the resultant im-
agery is a “mixed image” that in its visible structure tells the effects of trans-
formation into a new form. Historically, the most striking example certainly is
the collage form of the image that is based upon the mixing of different mate-
rials and convergence of heterogeneous media. The emerging new form ef-
fected through transformative ways (such as collage, montage, and more recently
the morph) can be called an intermedia form insofar as it expresses the funda-
mental incoherence of the elements combined. This “mixed image” type of
intermediality will fundamentally change the shape of the image.

With regards to the current discourse about digital media, it should now be clear
that when we want to distinguish digital and analogue on a technical basis we
cannot approve of Mitchell’s assertion that “intermediate processing of images
plays a central role” in digital arts,4 simply because he does not consider the
matter of intermediality in analogue media as the necessary counterpart to
evaluate an intermediate interrelationship. As stated, intermediality relies on
the transformation between at least two different components, and yet in the
digital, there is no concept of difference. If, as Mitchell says, manipulation is
the central category of the digital, I conclude that this suggests a totally differ-
ent type of merging—thus digital processing is not an intermediate interrelation-
ship. More precisely, the digital itself will dissolve any intermediality and trans-
formation. But where digital and analogue features are combined, it is interest-
ing to analyse the intermediate processes that takes place between the two,
because in so doing, distinctions between the two media become evident. In
the case of the digital, different media are integrated within the same technical
structure. Since the distinctions are blurred, interrelationship in the digital is

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not grounded on transformation, but on manipulation. Strictly speaking, ma-
nipulation in the digital means the possibility to simulate, transform, combine,
and alter any other form of the image through computational processes. The
crucial point is: “A digital image may be part scanned photograph, part computer-
synthesized shaded perspective, and part electronic ‘painting’—all smoothly
melted into an apparently coherent whole.”5 Consequently, when manipulation
in the digital refers to processes of intermediality and incoherence between
media—which is the essential concern in transformation—all these features are
already merged into coherence, for structurally they all have the same code.
Conversely, in the analogue the connection of different media always requires
transformation because the basic differences between two or more media com-
bined must be somehow mediated, translated onto a level of comparision, and
finally transmitted on another—a “third” level—which is the resultant image.
Therefore, the new form of the image that emerges from intermediate transfor-
mation is in itself twofold and incoherent. So here we have two basic character-
istics of intermediality; on the one hand it sustains difference, and on the other,
it mediates and closes the gap. In short, intermediality is a feature of composite
and incoherence; it separates and connects within the same form of the image.

When the digital performs such processes, it is on the level of simulation instead
of transformation, because the fundamental differences are actually effaced in
the encoded image and will only virtually be activated and reestablished. Simu-
lation means that physical processes that create visibility—such as the registra-
tion of light rays, or chemical and mechanical manipulations—are copied, or
duplicated in a type of fakery which pretends (simulates) that we are still deal-
ing with the actual photography of film. But, on the contrary, what is actually
manifested is the dissolution of the factual. In other words: the digital main-
tains the distinction between elements and media in such ways that factual
differences and technical requirements of other media are negated through
dissolution. If this negation is a fundamental category of the digital, we may
conclude that what the digital performs, or better “processes” is the dissolution
of image features. And the form in which this dissolution takes place can be
characterized as the maintainance of the nonexistent. This defines the charac-
teristics of simulation. According to Friedrich Kittler only the digital has this
defining manipulation at it’s disposal: to affirm what is not.6

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Transformation and Simulation

If this contradiction or paradox is characteristic of the type of simulation that


occurs in digital manipulation, it is evidently different from intermediality.
However, according to Mitchell, it should be this type of simulation image that
“plays the role” of the “intermediate processing of images.” However, it should
be clear that, on the contrary, this image can only simulate intermediality. More
precisely, it will affirm an intermediality that factually cannot take place because
the requirements for transformation are actually negated in the dissolution of
the distinction between media.

Here again, on the basis of negation the simulation of intermediality will affirm
and maintain what is not: the transformation of disparate media. Furthermore,
if transformation is simulated, this paradox characterizes the specific quality of
manipulation in the digital. Manipulation means that discrete elements of in-
formation are in principle “endlessly” enlarged, compressed, and replicated, so
that, as Mitchell affirms, “a digital image that is a thousand generations away
from the original is indistinguishable in quality from any one of its progenitors.”7
Clearly, in manipulation of the digital there is no development, nor transfor-
mation, thus the question of continuity or discontinuity of analogue features is
not a relevant one.

Given these premises, it is clear that manipulation in the digital does not work
with the same transformation process that is essentially the concern of inter-
mediality. In taking up the technically grounded distinction of analogue and
digital media we must therefore distinguish between the specific type of inter-
relationship that occurs in the analogue (and is based on intermediality), and any
other concept of interrelation and merging that relies on digital manipulation
that in principle endlessly and seamlessly processes any image type. In con-
sidering the widely confirmed assumption that the digital in fact blurs any dis-
tinction, it does produce coherence, and it does so even if it simulates incoher-
ence through manipulation. So the digital basically relies on the concept of same-
ness. But as we will see in the section on morph, digital cinema makes use of
these techniques of the digital in order to produce (simulate) a difference
that is grounded on sameness. While the digital as such confirms sameness

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regardless of any difference performed in aesthetic strategies, there are specific
figurations such as the morph that may counter this principle, to the extent
that within the sameness of the digital a difference nevertheless will become
visible. In particular, this pertains to an image in reverse, that introduces
another category for transformation. Vivian Sobcack describes this type of
transformation, that simultaneously assimilates difference and asserts sameness
as the “sameness of difference.”8

What interests me is how continuities and discontinuites overlap in the shape


of the digitally processed image, and how the interrelationship between ana-
logue and digital elements may result in new forms that manifest strong cin-
ematic features. In short, I approach digitality in cinema with an intermedia
approach, because in my view it is an emphasis on aspects of continuity and
discontinuity that contributes to an understanding of the structural elements
that either connect or differentiate between analogue and digital imagery.
What is central here is the legacy of the analogue in the digital: where filmic
processes of continuity are crossed with digital tools of layering, and the result-
ing intermedia form reveals cinema’s basic, dual function of the interval—that
is, to simultaneously connect and, on another level, separate at the same time.
What constitutes linear continuity in the first place is transformed from a tem-
poral to a spatial category of connecting elements. The technique of layering
produces spatial density and thereby sustains the mode of connecting elements,
whereas the mode of separation is sustained insofar as the structure of merging
remains visible. The type of image that results from layering and transforms
an image of intervals into an image of spatial organization, with connecting and
separating elements, is the collage. In cinema the collage counters the principle
of filmic montage since the maintenance of linear continuity is disrupted by
the creation of spatial density. It is interesting to note that on the edge of ana-
logue and digital imagery the introduction of new technologies into cinema
produces, in particular, those effects that mix features of linear continuity and
spatial density. The most sriking example of this, of course, is the morph.
With regard to structural components of the morph, we can talk about the
emergence of a “spatial effect” that refers to the development of “special effects”
in science fiction film, but is crucially different inasmuch as the “effect” of
spatialization is electronically simulated.9

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As Sobchack has pointed out, this type of space “emphasizes a particular kind
of density and texture” which is the inflation and mapping of space rather than
its depiction. “Electronic simulation’s hyperreality is valued precisely because
it is an abstraction of cinematic representation. Where the latter re-presents
three-dimensional space and the analogue variations of light and atmosphere
that constitute the sensual experience of texture and contour, the former com-
putes and simulates represented space—analyzing, schematizing, and digitally
coordinating it so that three dimensions, texture, and contour are diagrammed
rather than pictured.”10 Relatedly, Sean Cubitt introduces the term “spatial
effects” in distinction to conventional special effects in classical cinema in or-
der to characterize the spatialization that is characteristic of digitality. What he
calls the “endless dataspace” results from the transgression of coherence and
fixity and allows the artist to move in all directions and dimensions.11

As with the morph, the digital collage can be used to create open-ended struc-
tures and incoherence. Furthermore, these features are grounded in cinema’s
ability to connect and separate, and to achieve continuity upon incoherence.
Thus in the following discussion, I will take a closer look at two features of
imaging in digital cinema that offer evidence for coherence and incoherence.
Against the background of the analogue, my focus lies on collage and its relation
to the digital morph.

The Collage

Collage means to cut, to remove by cutting, and to insert and layer elements
that have not originally been related. The essential characteristic of collage lies
within the combination of heterogeneous elements into one single form. Be-
cause of its techniques of inserting and layering the collage has mainly been used
in fine arts to break up the close surface structure of painting and to express
the modernist idea of fragmentation and simultaneity in the arts. In a different
manner, montage developed mainly within the emergence of cinema to fulfill
the need to structurally or narratively connect fragmented elements in a linear
structure to express parallel action, and/or eventually conflicting information.
As an aesthetic feature in the art of the moving image montage has a dual

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function: it separates and connects different elements in a spatial-temporal
continuum. Montage has been widely articulated in the film medium to struc-
ture the ordering of images and the narrative in a linear way.

I use the term “cinematic collage” to describe another form of the moving im-
age where montage techniques that usually transport continuity are crossed with
matte and layering techniques. I am in particular interested in the type of im-
age that transforms montage into collage, meaning that the complexity and
amount of matte and layering counters or even dissolves the montage function
in favor of “spatial effects.” This happens more and more often with the use
of digital tools in film, so that the overriding linear structure of moving images
is reversed into spatial density. I define the image form of a collage that expresses
this spatial density as a “cluster.” Cinematic clusters are often expressed in
experimental films that work with layers, as well as in image forms of narrative
films that are extensively constructed with matte techniques. Such cinematic
clusters will always produce image effects that are well considered as more
spatial than temporal. In contrast, the cinematic interval is a predominantly
temporal category, although the interval certainly mediates not only the tem-
poral but also the spatial gap between single frames. What is important here,
however, is the overriding structural principle.

Thus, when collage is used to express features of intermediality in cinema by


combining the analogue technique of the interval with a digital layering tech-
nique, the resulting feature will stress the spatial organizing principle. Similarly,
as collage in the fine arts broke up the coherent surface of the picture plane,
collage effects developed in moving images create a degree of extreme spatial
density within a single frame that seems to break up linear continuity and the
temporal connecting function of montage. High density collage results from
the insertion of many, many layers and comprises the components of montage
in such ways that the two directional functions of the moving image—namely to
represent time and space—are transformed into another form of the image that
expresses a spatially organized structure, such as collage clusters. Although elec-
tronic devices of matte and digital layering widen the concept of collage to a more
complex and complicated cluster, in principle the structure of the cubist collage
is sustained, particularly in regards to the dominant function of spatialization.

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Nevertheless we should not forget that the assertion of spatialization refers to
the level of aesthetic strategies, grounded upon the technical distinction between
analogue and digital. As we will see in the later discussion on morph, the digi-
tal as such does not represent any specific direction, it comprises all directions:
in short it is non-directional. To reiterate, recent media theories have repeatedly
pointed out that the crucial difference between the cinematic and electronic
image, on the one hand, and the computer-processed, information-based numeric
image on the other, is grounded in simulation. Where cinematic and electronic
images represent directional characteristics, the computer- processed image simu-
lates such characteristics. Strikingly, it is Gilles Deleuze who said, in agreement
with Edmond Couchot, that the digitally encoded image has omni-directional
features and therefore does not “represent” the parameters of time and space.12

However, as suggested earlier, when we compare analogue and digital features,


and in particular discuss the transformation of cinematic features into the digi-
tal, we should refer to actual aesthetic strategies that unfold features of conti-
nuity and discontinuity. With this restriction, we may say that when the func-
tion of montage is transformed into collage a new form of the image (cluster)
emerges that indicates a shift in the image. This shift refers to cinema’s pre-
dominant concern with temporality that is transformed into digital cinema’s
dominant feature of spatialization. I do not want to say the digital as such would
have these spatial directions, but I want to underline the argument that spatial-
iziation is the preferably expressed feature in digital aesthetics. The digital
collage not only inherits the spatial structure of painterly collage, but it also
encompasses the filmic montage.

At this point it is interesting to reiterate that collage structurally presents a


concept of difference that becomes visible in the shape of the image itself.
With regards to digital cinema’s spatialization, this means that temporal features
are not considered to be simply dissolved, but rather transformed, reworked,
reshaped, and finally changed in directionality.

As the historical example of the cubist collage exposes different textures (paper,
cloth, wood) which are recognizable in the final “image,” in a cinematic collage
the types of moving and non-moving images will remain present in the form of

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the mixed image. Because the collage form of the image makes structural dif-
ferences visible it predominantly bears the function of an interface that connects
not only different materials (such as in the painterly collage), but also different
media elements (such as analogue and digital in the digital collage). For these
two reasons, namely the visibility of difference and the quality of intermediality,
I consider collage in the digital as the most appropriate image form capable of
expressing the shift from cinematic moving image to spatial density. Thus, the
type of the image that can comprise different forms of directionality (temporal
and spatial) within the same image will certainly have a paradoxical structure.
And as we will see, the morph is the most striking visual articulation of the
paradoxical structure between cinematic and digital features.

However, what is a paradoxical structure? Paradoxical structures of the image


are known in the history of perception. These are exemplified in different
fields of visual representation, but are most prominently discussed in percep-
tion theory. In the twenties, Edgar Rubin researched the rules that create the
paradox of visual recognition.13 A paradoxical perception occurs when the pic-
ture plane of a drawing alternatively is seen to present the contours of a vase or a
face. As we regard such a drawing, the perceived figuration shifts; the visibility
of one or the other figuration depends on the the viewer who either focusses
on the figure or the ground. The point is that these two figurations (vase or
face) that are in fact presented at the same time on the same picture cannot be
seen together. In other words, what is visually presented simultaneously can
only be perceived with temporal delay: one image after the other.

Rubin’s description of perceptional rules finds a parallel in the painterly work


of the German Bauhaus artist Josef Albers who from an artist’s point of view
posed the problem of how to present color in painting. He suggested ways in
which to distinguish between the “actual fact” and the “factual fact.”14 Albers
demonstrated this perceptional problem in the example of the painted picture
plane that consists of two differently colored monochromatic fields that are in-
serted into each other. In choosing the different monochromatic coloring of the
two “layers” according to the assumption that each single color has a specific
expression of density and depth, Albers brought together two colors on a picture
plane that produce spatial tension. The effect is highlighted with the apparent

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fusion of the two fields so that there is a compression between what is actually
seen and the factually presented visual information. The spatial ordering of
two differently colored fields seems to shift permanently as if the two fields
would perpetually exchange their foreground and the background position on
a factual two-dimensional surface. The resulting effect produces the perceptible
impression (“illusion”) of a permanent exchange in the depth of fields. The
perceived effect of distortion is similar to fusion in cinema.

In discussing aspects of digital “fusion” such as the morph, one should also con-
sider, for the point of comparison, the paradoxical structure of the film image
that occurs through the flicker effect. In film, flicker occurs at a certain velocity
between images that are set in motion; the same flicker is eliminated through
the rotation of the Maltese cross in the mechanics of projection. In cinema it
is the frequency of light impulses that stabilizes the continuous projection of
coherent moving single images. But, in fact we are given one image after the
other that we actually perceive in fusion. These phenomena—seeing paradoxi-
cal figurations in picture puzzles, and perceiving coherent motion film (given the
technical requirements)—are widely discussed in perception and film theories.15

In digital cinema, this paradoxical figuration basically occurs in the intermedia


type of image that results from transformation processes between different or-
ganizational forms of the visible, for example the transformation of linear order-
ing into cluster—in short a collision between montage and collage. What becomes
visible in such a structural comparision of different types of movement (between
dynamic and static) and diverse directional qualities (temporal and spatial fea-
tures) is the concept of difference. Thus the digital unfolds the difference be-
tween analogue and digital imaging in the figuration of a visual paradox. In a
comparison of analogue and digital, this paradox has two aspects: first, in the
digital the paradox reveals the structural merging between cinematic, electronic,
and computed forms of the image—namely it makes visible the differential
quality. Second, since the paradox results from intermediality it allows for the
recognition of continuities and discontinuities between analogue and digital.

Nevertheless we should keep in mind, as Mitchell states, that the digital will
only simulate the factual but not actually perform the difference. Furthermore

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we have to define the level of comparison in which intermediality and the para-
doxical figuration in the digital would actually happen. In other words, how
does the digital that blurs distinctions nevertheless reveal the concept of visual
difference in the paradoxical image? Since, as suggested, we do not want to
refer solely to technical requirements, but also want to consider aesthetic strat-
egies that depart from technical settings, we must refer to the figuration of the
simulation in the digital.

With regard to digital aesthetics in the arts we may acknowledge that the basic
requirements of the digital allow for the simulation of exactly those transforma-
tion processes that have occured in analogue media arts. I will argue that the
shift in the digital can be made visible through the comparison of the two op-
posing features which are encompassed in the simulation itself. For clarity, I
refer to the media theoretician Friedrich Kittler, who defines the structure of
the digital as twofold; because as he argues, simulation takes place in two dif-
ferent ways: it may assert and affirm what is presented, but it may also affirm
what will not be presented, such as difference. In affirming what is not the
fact in the digital, the digital performs what Kittler calls negation.

More precisely, Kittler uses the term simulation to characterize the digital that
in contrast to the analogue allows for negation, whereas the analogue is always
grounded on the actual fact; in short, the analogue always involves representa-
tion and figuration. Only with the emergence of the digital it is possible to ma-
nipulate negation in such ways that what is non-factual can be asserted. This
means simulation that affirms negation, and this defines the specific quality of
manipulation in the digital. As Kittler says: “The affirmative means that we
affirm what is and negate what is not, whereas simulation means to affirm what
is not and negate what is,”16 so that on the basis of algorithms all connections
can be made possible through negation. In contrast, figuration always works
on the factual level, so that analogue media and their figurations cannot escape
affirmation and do not possess the option of negation.

Regarding the simulated figuration of the paradoxical structure in the digital it


should be evident now that the digital may reveal the difference between the
analogue and the digital because of the twofold structure of simulation, namely

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affirmation and negation. On the one hand, the digital negates difference as
part of the digital, on the other hand, it simultaneously simulates difference by
affirming what is not. Furthermore, this twofold simulation allows for the
“figuration” of intermediality because both components of the merger can be
affirmed, can be presented, so that the digital will be the level of simulated, a
more precisely manipulated figuration that makes visible the instability of the
paradoxical quality of the intermedia image.

This is possible because simulation in the digital has the ability to perform in
both ways (affirmative and negative) and thereby reveals a difference which
indicates the distinction between the analogue and the digital. The point is
that the shift from analogue to digital types of media images is presented in the
digitally processed image. Thus, the difference between the two types of me-
dia is encompassed within the manipulative structures of digital media. At this
particular point we may say that the digital inherents analogue features, but this
is only true if we consider both sides of simulation against the background of
the analogue. In other words: when we consider the interrelationship between
analogue and digital in terms of continuities and discontinuities, we no longer
have to deal with the question of transformation, but with the simulation of
transformation, namely with an interrelationship that is completely encom-
passed in the digital. To conclude: what characterizes the intermediality be-
tween analogue and digital features, such as the shift towards spatialization in
collage, is actually a feature of the digital itself; more precisely intermediality
in the digital is a quality of simulation. Nevertheless it becomes visible in the
(aesthetic) figuration of the paradoxical image—in, for example the morph.

The Morph

The morph is one aspect of the paradoxical figuration in crossing analogue and
digital techniques that paradigmatically expresses the digital manipulation of
cinematic forms of moving images. For example, consider the morphing tech-
niques in a Coca Cola Commercial by Michael Gondry (1996) presented at “Ars
Electronica” in Linz, Austria. While this commercial is not the most prominent
or advanced example of recent morphing, I refer to it because its digital effects

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are highly dense and complex and primarily use film as a prerequisite and
starting point. Thus the actual shift from film techniques (as stated by Kittler)
is strikingly evident on the level of simulation.

The commercial is based on a series of photographic images taken with a high


speed camera at an extreme wide-angle. Basically a crowd is watching a snow-
boarder/ski-jumper who performs a 360° loop in the air. These images are
morphed in a way that time delays occur forward and backwards, resulting in
images as if the jumper could actually move forward and backwards while cir-
culating in the air. The commercial is a combination of morphing and still pho-
tography in a series; many different cameras are positioned and synchronized
such that they take the same moment in time from different spatial positions.
The temporal synchronization of non-linear imagery is then translated into a
sequence which creates motion between different viewing positions, but does
not create a motion picture. What happens is that the time of images which is
the density of one single moment in time is translated into the linear structure
of the cinematic organization of images resulting in the effect that the viewer
moves around the same moment in time, so that time becomes a spatial feature.
In other words, the synchronizied image positions of still photography in series
when viewed in motion have the resulting effect of replacing time with space.

The morphing between different image positions in time suggests movements


within the image that have never taken place as real movements. The morph
is a striking technique to visualize the dual function of simulation, since parts
of the image are transformed in two ways, back and forth, so that two different
moments in time hit each other in one single image unit, thereby creating
“spatial effects” of density. This provides an example of the omni-directional
image achieved through layers, as described earlier in the essay with regard to
Deleuze’s and Couchot’s definition of the digital. Since the digital image has no
directional function, as does the analogue, the digital morph can be seen as a
media specific feature of the digital that presents this omni-directional quality:
to move backward and forward and stand still. Since this presentation of move-
ment is a function of simulation, the morph literally and visually exposes the
dissolving of difference as a crucial characteristic of the digital, as described
by Mitchell.

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According to the given definition of the digital, that the digital image does not
represent time and space, but rather manipulates these parameters through affir-
mation and negation, we can identify these two attributes in the morph. Two
aspects of simulation become visible: first, in the forward movement as an af-
firmation of moving, filmic images; and second in the reversal of this movement,
moving backwards, and also in the still point of movement that both dissolves
and negates the first feature. Because moving is possible in both directions it
becomes optional. The reversibility of moving images indicates that transfor-
mation is possible in both ways, either to affirm analogue tools or to transgress
those in digital manipulation.

Clearly the simulation of different phases of motion through digital compression


creates a collage image of clustering that unfolds a spatial density which is not
possible as such in an analogue image. The high density in the morph can
only be achieved in simulation, in particular through the presentation of the
negative, that is to say in the presentation of what is not. The negative part of
the simulation is visualized in the moving image that is no moving image but
is rather a result of morphing. The morph also simulates the function of mon-
tage (to connect and to separate) within the same individual image unit. It sus-
tains the spatial organization and the layering function of the type of the image
that we have described as collage, because the difference between two or more
different images or elements is presented in the morph through its paradoxical
structure that subordinates time to space. Thus the digital morph reveals col-
lage and montage types of organizing images within the spatial principle of
collage. However, the morph itself is an actual figuration of the digital and as
such it decidedly dissolves the function of difference. In other words, it negates
and affirms the processes of transformation that we see. Therefore we might
better describe the morph in terms of permanent instability. On the one hand
the morph gives an example of the sameness which is crucial for the coherence
in the digital; on the other, it encompasses the reworking of difference on the
level of visible simulation. To conclude: difference is an optional function of
the structural sameness that may simulate difference. Moreover, when the
digital simulates difference it thereby assert sameness.

When Sobchack analyzes the transformation of time and space in the formal

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figuration of the digital morph, she describes this paradox as the “sameness of
difference.” In primarily refering to Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotope,
Sobchack is interested in the figuration of paradoxical images, in particular in
the digital morph as a “‘chronotopic cohesion of narrative time and space”18
that transforms representational categories of the cinema into seamless and
flexible structures. With regard to the crucial question of difference Sobchack
says: “That is, the morph’s primary mode is to assert not only sameness across
difference, but also the very sameness of difference. While often representing
cultural binaries at its static points…, the process of the morph attempts to
erase this binarism in the homogenous, seamless, and effortless movement of
transformation and implied reversibility.”19 What is interesting about morphing
in digital cinema is that it simulates the transformation of the temporal into the
spatial on the grounds of dissolving any stable figuration. The main paradoxical
features of morphing thus are instability and density.

With regard to the morph’s transformation of time in space this specific form of
digital imaging reveals the “spatial effect” that Cubitt sees as the essential char-
acteristics of the digital. Furthermore it is the paradoxical structure of the morph
that expresses the incoherent quality of the analogue image (as based on differ-
ence) as part of coherence. My argument is that with the use of morphing in cin-
ema a paradoxical structure emerges that constantly shifts between moving and
non-moving images (The latest most striking achievement of these techniques
can be seen in the film Matrix, directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski, USA
1999). This paradox is interesting in the context of analyzing intermediality
and its limits, in particular because it reveals how digital manipulation transforms,
reworks, and reshapes cinematic moving images through effacing essential dif-
ference. This happens when the film’s interval is “reversed” so that differ-
ence is replaced through “sameness of difference.” As we have seen, this can
be done because of a twofold simulation.

In dissolving difference through sameness and at the same point asserting the
“sameness of difference” it is the figuration of the morph that equally unfolds
the distinction between analogue and digital and reveals the media specific
features of the digital itself. Because of the reversibility in digital cinema the
use of morphing will maintain the difference across sameness where moving

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images are spatially compressed. And the digital morph will assert the “sameness
of difference” as the overriding principle of the digital that encompasses features
of the analogue. To conclude: the paradoxical image of the digital is the place
where essential characteristics of the analogue become visible as a category of
the digital.

Notes

1) William J. Mitchell, The Reconfigured Eye. Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), 7. (1992) MIT Press,
2. Mitchell, 7.
3. See Fridrich Kittler, “Fiktion und Simulation,” in Philosophien der neuen Technologie,
ed. Ars Electronica (Berlin: Merve Publishers, 1989).
4. Mitchell, 4.
5. Mitchell, 5.
6. See Kittler.
7. Mitchell, 6.
8. Vivian Sobchack, “At the Still Point of the Turning World: Meta-Morphing and
Meta-Stasis,” in Bild Medium Kunst, ed. Yvonne Spielmann and Gundolf Winter
(Munich: Fink Publishers, 1999). Also in: Meta-Morphing: Visual Transformation and the
Culture of the Quick Change, ed. Vivian Sobchack (Minneapolois:Minnesota University
Press, forthcoming).
9. “Spatial effect” is a term borrowed from Sean Cubitt. See Sean Cubitt, Digital
Aesthetics (London: Sage press, 1998).
10. Vivian Sobchack, Screening Space. The American Science Fiction Film, 2nd ed. (New
York: Ungar, 1987), 261.
11. Cubitt, 91.
12. See Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2. The Time-Image (University of Minneapolis: Minne-
sota Press, 1995) and Edmond Couchot, “La mosaique ordonnée ou l’écran saisi par le
calcul,” Communications 48 (1988) (Vidéo).
13. For a wider discussion of Edgar Rubin and other phenomena see: Rudolf Arnheim,
Art and Visual Perception - A Psychology of The Creative Eye (Berkeley and Los Angeles:
University of California Press, 1974).
14. Josef Albers, Interaction of Color (New Haven and London: Yale University Press,
1975).
15. For the flicker in film see: Bill Nichols and Susan J. Lederman, “Flicker and
Motion in Film,” in Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath, eds. The Cinematic Appara-
tus (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979).
16. Fridrich Kittler, 64.
17. See Deleuze and Couchot.
18. Sobchack, “At the Still Point of the Turning World: Meta Morphing and Meta-
Stasis,” 86.
19. Sobchack, 91.

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