3.12 / We Are, I Am, You Are

Interview with Eve Sussman

By Elyse Mallouk March 29, 2012

Image: Eve Sussman and Rufus Corporation. whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, 2011 (still); color and black-and-white film. Courtesy of the Artists and Sundance Film Festival.

Titled after the 1918 painting by Kazimir Malevich, whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir is, in Sussman’s words, “a film without a center.” The main character, Mr. Holtz, is a fictional American geophysicist who takes a job in a sprawling foreign metropolis, writing code for the suspicious New Method Oil Well Cementing Company (named after a real conglomerate that later grew to become Halliburton). Resources are running short: water and oil are scarce; language is rationed. Holtz finds himself responding to cryptic dictates from a mysterious character called Dispatch, and plagued by persistent surveillance and the sense that his activities are outside of his control. In one storyline, he is charged with recording a language that he won’t be able to retain; he will be forced to hand over the tapes. Though its implied conspiracies and outmoded futuristic aesthetic provide the feel of a ’70s mystery thriller, the film offers no climax or resolution. Using tags embedded in the time code of each audio and video clip, an algorithm creates a unique, ephemeral edit of the film each time it’s screened, integrating picture and audio on the fly. Despite the ever-changing narrative, Holtz’s predicament remains the same, pointing to one of the film’s central assertions: in spite of our finite range of emotions and the volatile conditions we encounter, humans habitually search for transcendence.

I viewed whiteonwhite in January 2012 at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was being screened as a New Frontier Feature, connecting it to both mainstream feature film and interactive installation. The screening began before the audience entered the theater, inducing viewers to rush into seats and pick up the already unfolding narrative. On either side of the theater, a “code screen” revealed the algorithm’s decision-making mechanisms. The tags it transparently sought and found produced a litany of descriptive metadata: map, smoke, sky. As the words and corresponding clips accumulated, impressions became substantive building blocks, echoing Malevich’s goal of creating a visual language in which “pure feeling or perception” reigns supreme.1

While whiteonwhite contains elements of Malevich’s optimism, it also alludes to the repression that followed in the wake of the Russian Revolution: personal freedoms were stripped away; the visual syntax built by Malevich was forcibly replaced with Social Realism, just as Holtz will forget the language he records. As Holtz struggles for agency within a system of seemingly arbitrary rules, viewers endeavor not only to detect embedded visual and linguistic patterns but also to invent a narrative arc. Not even Eve Sussman and her collaborators at Rufus Corporation can predict what stories might emerge; each is only one in an infinite number of potential plotlines.

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Elyse Mallouk: I’d like to begin by asking you about the inspiration for whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir. It’s set in City A, which is also the name of the city in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 sci-fi film noir, Alphaville. In Alphaville, a sentient computer called Alpha 60 controls the city and outlaws free thought and poetry. You’ve referred to the computer that edits whiteonwhite as a “serendipity machine,” one that was produced with the hope of creating beautiful, poetic juxtapositions, and I’m interested in the difference between these two computers.

Eve Sussman: The story very much references Alphaville and Alpha 60. At the same time, our computer has aspects that contradict that idea; it does make poetic juxtapositions that my editor and I never would have thought of on our own. The Alphaville reference partially came from the idea of overwhelming, architectural, master-planned environments, where you really feel the power and overarching control of the planners. A small number of people build a place for a much larger number of people to inhabit, and they have big ideas about how those people should inhabit that place.

The primary location for shooting the film is a city called Aktau, Kazakhstan. It’s at the edge of the Mangystau Desert, on the edge of the Caspian Sea. The water is completely brackish and undrinkable, so you have to make water, an extremely hubristic thing that has the same godly quality that dropping a city in the middle of nowhere does—making it a numbered grid so that it works. When you get rid of street names, which are a recollection of history, and number the streets instead, you erase history or insinuate that there was no history.

Aktau looks kind of like a circuit board, but it predates the digital, circuit-board mentality by almost half a century. And so it had this prescient feeling to it. You look at the overarching power of the urban planners and architects, and then at the overarching power of the computer, whether it’s the computer in Alphaville or our computer, and there’s this weird relationship there.

EM: You mentioned that the numbered grid has the effect of erasing history and confounding memory. That’s often what algorithms and search engines are accused of: taking away our ability to remember because we become reliant on them.

ES: Right, they do it for us. The guys in Alphaville are in a relationship with a machine, and my collaborators and I are in this relationship with a machine that we built as makers. It brings up references to artificial intelligence: is the machine battling with you? Does it try to get away from you? Does it try to outsmart you? Our algorithm is not a genetic algorithm, but it can still suggest things to us that we never would have thought of, and some of those things are actually good ideas. We could judge those ideas as being better than our own; we could also judge them as being worse. But every now and then, when the computer does outsmart us by presenting us with something that’s better, it’s uncanny. There are all kinds of paradoxical and strange bouts of competitiveness that happen when you decide to turn over aspects of that creative process to this Frankenstein monster that you built but don’t completely control.

EM: In a way, the audience experiences something similar. Viewers watch clips being edited on the spot by a machine, but they’re the ones who are charged with producing the narrative. The algorithm seems to be a metaphor for control, for surrendering it and exercising it.

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Eve Sussman and Rufus Corporation. whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, 2011 (still); color and black-and-white film. Courtesy of the Artists and Sundance Film Festival.

ES: When you say that you have a piece that’s somehow controlled by computer, the first thing people say is, “Well, is it interactive? I want to get in there and type the word bird and see all one hundred fifty clips of birds come up in front of me.” And my reaction to that would be “Well, you’re the audience, so you get to be passive.” But actually, it is interactive. It’s interactive because you’re creating at least half of the story.

EM: I was at the Sundance Festival to write about New Frontier installations, many of which are interactive. I was struck by the fact that yours was one of the least interactive. Viewers didn’t have to strap anything to their bodies or hold an iPad; they didn’t have to participate in a predefined way. But whiteonwhite was one of the most participatory projects, in the sense that viewers could make infinite constructions out of what was presented to them.

ES: It’s not physically participatory. You don’t get to type on a keyboard and control what you see, but you do participate in a very different way than you do with a mainstream feature film. Mainstream feature film more or less feeds you the narrative, so we generally think we’ve seen the same movie. In the case of whiteonwhite, people have varying ideas of what’s going on in City A or with the character, depending on what section of the voiceovers they heard or how [the algorithm orders] those voiceovers. Most people watch for about an hour, and in an hour you hear less than a quarter of the voiceovers. Depending on which day you saw it, you heard very different parts of the narrative, and you fill in the blanks, in this very personal way. I’ve also found that people respond to different clips in very different ways. People will like or dislike certain clips for very personal reasons—which is true for all art, in a way—but because you’re also involved in creating 50 percent of the narrative, your relationship to the visuals is very different.

EM: You directed the film, so your hand is very visible in it, but I’m also curious about your role in tagging the clips. The tags form a kind of subjective organizational structure that dictates which clips are related and how they’re related. What was the tagging process like?

ES: I started with Kevin Messman, the editor who also co-wrote and developed the project with me. Kevin helped me translate to Jeff Garneau, the programmer, what should be happening with this algorithm and how to make it do something that we thought would feel like a movie. The tagging process began as a real stream of consciousness; we’d just look at stuff and type words. After a while, we’d start to weed out the words that were less meaningful or that had a smaller chance of coming up. A tag doesn’t mean anything if it only occurs once, at least in the way our algorithm works; you need to have at least two or three or ten clips that share a tag, or it’s not interesting. We want one or two hundred clips that share a tag. We probably have about one hundred fifty tags. They do have a certain poetic content since we tagged some in ways that were extremely obvious and didactic and others in ways that were more metaphorical.

EM: During the Q&A after the screening I attended, you said that the narrative hadn’t come together as much as it did in some of the other screenings.

ES: I remember not loving that first screening. But you’re an uninitiated audience member. For me, the machine has to live up to the potential of all of the great serendipity I’ve seen it do. It’s a little bit like life. You can walk the same road

ES (cont.): between your home and your work every day, and most of the time you miss 90 percent of it, but maybe 10 percent of the time something really striking happens and you remember it. My idea of what the algorithm can do is made up of those really striking moments, put together. Because I know so much about what it can do—I’ve seen it do great things, and I’ve seen it make terrible choices—I’m more often let down, especially in a situation like Sundance, where you feel the pressure of a theater-going, cinematic audience that’s expecting something that has something to do with feature film.

It’s a little gut-wrenching to show it in a theatrical context. It’s not the first time I’ve done it. But at the MoMA theater, the Berlinale, and the Toronto International Film Festival, we didn’t have [screening] times or tickets. People felt free to enter and to leave as they wanted. At Sundance, the fact that it was a ticketed event with a strict start and end time creates a kind of pressure, which is tricky for this piece. I’m not saying it’s a bad way to show the piece; it’s just not great for me, as the director, to be there, because I’m judging every edit the machine makes, wondering how many people are going to sit through the screening and how many people are going to leave. With each Sundance screening, maybe ten or fifteen people left [early], but the bulk of the people stayed. And that was heartening, to realize that enough people get this or are getting something out of it.

EM: I read in another interview that you consider this to be one of the most political pieces that you’ve done. Do you still consider that to be true, and if so, in what ways? Is it the content, or is it more about the structure, in the sense that viewers enact an incredible agency over the piece, even though it’s dominated by a machine and controlled by the algorithm?

ES: Political is a big word. I’d love to be able to say that I’m making more political work, but I feel that’s a bit pretentious. The film is talking about certain things that are really rife in our political environment—the problems of oil, with water, and with unsustainable cities—but it’s not talking about any specific place. City A is a conflation of a bunch of different locations, to insinuate a fantasy city that doesn’t exist. We shot in Dubai, probably the most unsustainable city in the world, and we were exploring the human desire to do hubristic things like make water, but I’m more interested in the poetry in politics. I think politics is tied up with this desire for a better future, that great human quest. It’s the quest that made people try to go to space. It’s also the quest of Kazimir Malevich, his desire for a transcendent space. That’s what whiteonwhite is all about.

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Eve Sussman and Rufus Corporation. whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, 2011 (still); color and black-and-white film. Courtesy of the Artists and Sundance Film Festival.

EM: I’m interested in ideas about passivity and activity overlapping. There’s a lot of agency in being a reader, because a reader is really the one who puts a story together.

ES: I like what you’re referring to, that it’s political in a more conceptual way. It’s not tied to the nuts-and-bolts politics that we see in the newspaper every day. It’s tied to the politics of humanity, those ubiquitous politics that will always and have always plagued us as beings. In all of my work, I’m interested in the psychological interaction of humans that isn’t tied to specific moments in history but to the desires and cravings of what it means to be a human being. The main thing that ties my work together—and the work seems really different to a lot of people—is that I make a study of the psychology of any given group dynamic. Those psychologies don’t really change over time. We only have a finite amount of emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anxiety, loneliness, desire, whatever. We don’t invent new ones. Technology is not going to give us a new way of feeling. Politics is not going to give us a new way of feeling. So even if we become “more progressive” human beings—and to a degree, you could say that historically we have progressed—our desires and the way we feel about political situations haven’t actually changed. We can advance technologically, but at the same time we’re destroying ourselves. We’ve managed to kill off a certain number of diseases while inventing new ones. Progress and the basic fact that humanity can’t really change is the interesting paradox that I’m grappling with.

EM: This idea—that there are a limited number of emotions than human beings can experience—is really interesting to me. Film is a medium where that whole range of emotions is supposedly explored. And the algorithm is something that manages finite variables.

ES: Everything falls into a genre, and I think that’s because we do have a finite number of ways of feeling.

EM: And we also have a desire to categorize the things that we see and make them make sense as something recognizable. Algorithms help us do that.

ES: The curator at the Berlinale was into the idea of ordering the archive and what it means when you can get the archive to talk back to you. I had never really thought of whiteonwhite as an archive, but it is interesting to think about, going forward.

EM: I’m interested in each viewer’s responsibility—or ability—to create a narrative out of disparate parts. That’s happening on the main screen, and it’s also happening on the side screens where the algorithm is visible. Can you describe the choice to make the algorithm something that people can see? At the screening, I felt like I was piecing together two different stories or mysteries. I found myself wondering what the algorithm was thinking—personifying it, almost like it was a character.

ES: I like that. I think that’s great. For me, it was important that the code screen be in the room. What you’re seeing is not exactly the algorithm, which is just computer code; you see the metadata that’s embedded into each clip and into the voiceovers. By showing what I call the code screen, I’m telling the audience that a machine is editing this film. As soon as you see that code screen with the words on it, you know you’re not in a normal movie. Even if you have no idea it’s a computer editing the thing, you pretty quickly understand that there’s a relationship between those words on that screen and the thing that looks like a movie. And so, it was just about letting people know that there’s a machine involved here; it’s in the room with you, and it’s controlling this to some degree.

But there is also the poetic aspect, of just seeing those words going by. A few months ago, I did an interview with Kurt Andersen on Studio 360, and he read the code screen. He has this beautiful radio voice, and so it suddenly was like beat poetry or something. I had never heard somebody read the code screen out loud before. It took on a life of its own. It gives you this whole other layer of meaning, which is important, both in terms of the poetic nature of those words and the knowledge that the machine is in the room with you controlling something, and you get to peek into it a little bit.

EM: I was fascinated by the words on the code screen. I was scribbling down tags as I was watching the movie—I mean, the film. I kept running into this problem at Sundance: I always say movie when I should say film.

ES: What’s wrong with saying movie?

EM: I don’t know; it feels too informal or something. I’m not sure.

ES: I use the word movie a lot. I like saying, “Well, we have this thing and it kind of looks like a movie.” It looks like a movie much more than it looks like a film.

EM: I wonder what the difference is?

ES: I think movie feels a little bit more old-fashioned and more like something that clearly has a story: a beginning, middle, and end. Movies seem like those things from the 1920s or the ’50s, whereas film could be anything. You wouldn’t call a work by Stan Brakhage a movie; you’d call it a film. But Godard’s movies, those are movies. Movies tend to talk about stories. I think of them as more narrative and more dated. But that’s why I like saying whiteonwhite looks like a movie. It’s not a movie, but it has the accoutrements, it has the characteristics of faking being a movie. It hoodwinks you. The decision to have the subtitles appear even when you’re listening to English was important to me because subtitles, especially in black-and-white films, give you another signal of, “Oh yes, I’m a movie.”

EM: I’m curious about the relationship of this piece to some of your earlier pieces, particularly How to Tell the Future From the Past (1997), in which surveillance footage becomes part of a loosely constructed, imaginary narrative.

ES: That piece has a lot to do with what’s going on in algorithmicnoir. So does another piece, called The Whites Were a Mystery (2000). Both use totally low-tech, low-fi versions of what we’re doing with the high-tech algorithm. In The Whites Were a Mystery, there were three screens, with two Super 8 films switching off and on, running without any kind of synchronization. On the middle screen, in between the films, lines from stories cut in and out. In How to Tell the Future From the Past, stories would go by, line by line. The pictures next to them were, for the most part, live feed surveillance. The people you saw in the surveillance footage became the characters in the stories. You can’t help doing that kind of synthesis; you want to create a story, even though what’s happening is actually arbitrary. I thought that was really exciting. Ten years or fifteen years later, I cycled back to that way of working but with a much more high-tech tool, which is this algorithm.

EM: This desire to create a story out of arbitrary points—I also see that taking place in 89 Seconds at Alcazar. The scene captured in the painting serves as one of those points, and you are the one constructing what happens before and after.

ES: Absolutely, there’s a great point in 89 Seconds where the widow—the nun-looking character—crosses by the king, and just because of this split-second gesture between them, everyone assumes they’re having an affair. And then they separate and walk away. People read all kinds of things into these gestures. There’s no language in that piece, so it’s all about the power of gesture to insinuate narrative.

EM: And about the desire to put a narrative together out of things that might not even invite it.

ES: It’s all about how you magnify the stuff that’s already there. I’m interested in how we do that in everyday life. You walk into a room where there’s a dinner party going on, and you feel a certain vibe in that room. You’ve been there for all of a minute, and you have a narrative in your mind about what might be happening in that room. That silent interaction that goes on between people all the time is the tool I’m trying to use. It’s about our ability to read into things or our belief that we can read into things. Sometimes we’re right and sometimes we’re wrong, but in a way it doesn’t matter.

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Eve Sussman, who was born in 1961 in England, is an artist and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. In 2003, she founded the Rufus Corporation, a fluid band of artists, actors, musicians, dancers, writers, and programmers who have since collaborated with her on the films 89 Seconds at Alcazar (2004), The Rape of the Sabine Women (2007), and whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir (2011), and on the installation Yuri's Office (2008), which recreated the workspace of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. The group is currently working with Rufus member Simon Lee to produce performances of the Wallabout Oyster Theatre in Brooklyn. Their work has been exhibited internationally at film festivals and museums including the Sundance Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, the Berlinale, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Reina Sofia, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

 

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NOTES:

1. The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999), 85, http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=80385 (March 22, 2012).

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