“You can’t look into my eyes.” The Aesthetics of Small-File Cinema

2023-05-04
Yani Kong is a writer, editor, and scholar of contemporary art in Vancouver, Canada.
More on Yani Kong
Laura U. Marks works on media art and philosophy with an intercultural focus and an emphasis on appropriate technologies.
More on Laura Marks

“You said:

     You can’t look into my eyes.

     Look at the water and upturn.

     May my faces rain on you.

They did.”

Still from Glints 3: A Ravine, 2021

Glints 3, A Ravine (2021), the third installment of the four-part small file film by Somayeh Khakshoor, opens to the whisper of these words from the filmmaker. Water then begins to swirl in slow motion. At least it seems like water, but as it moves, it blends with itself without ever truly mixing, like oil and ink. If it was not for the sound of the rushing water and the hint of Khakshoor’s title, one may never know what they are looking at because what can be seen is indecipherable as water.

Still, she says, “May my faces rain on you.” They did. I feel it. At her suggestion I move my head towards the sound of the ravine – ever closer to my laptop – ready to receive it.

Feel, we must, because small-file cinema does not trade in the economy of representation. At a maximum size of 5 MB and recommended bitrate of 1 MB per minute, the films are short in length. Compressed for size, they are often blurry and hard to see. Very few small-file movies contain dialogue, so sometimes, they are hard to follow. These are some of the traits of the movies’ smallness, where compression, data moshing, glitch art, experimental and out-of-place audio, and shortened duration become processes that erode the clichés of narrative cinema. To decrease their carbon footprints, the tiny movies are pared down so that what is left is entirely aesthetic. In the absence of representation, they become sensation.

In A Ravine, Khakshoor trains our gaze on movement and flow. The time of the film has been slowed, yet even this effect isn’t readily apparent. Instead, the film feels intentionally thick: the fluid that consumes the screen seeps with a luxurious, even lazy quality in a basin of great depth. The audio is the hollowed-out sound of the lapping of this liquid, the kind of sound that can only be heard when one’s head is completely submerged.

My eyes follow the movement of the stream. Squirming streaks form along the surface, swishing and churning, drawing attention upwards and beyond the screen. This lasts less than a minute; then, time speeds up with a suddenness. For four seconds, it sounds like fluids rushing, rain driving. The fatty potion bubbles, quivers, floods with speed. At first, the film cultivates a sense of non-attention, dispersing the gaze across the placid, trippy goo. Like a lava lamp or a vintage screen saver, the waves induce both an over-focus and a non-focus where there is so much to observe about nothing in particular. Just as quickly, speed kicks in and we snap back to our familiar observational gaze. There was no event, yet the film delivers an experience of time, of being spellbound and then not.

Small-file movies don’t share in the luxuries of their large-file counterparts that are meant to be streamed in standard or 4k HD by many and often. The latter are shows with smooth visuals that stream (in principle if not in practice) without glitch, with narrative arcs that a spectator can identify with. All this easy streaming contributes to the massive carbon footprint of information and communication technologies (ICT).  ICT is confirmed by researchers to contribute about 4% of all global greenhouse gas emissions (Marks et. al 2021), a near second to the airline industry. Within it, streaming video counts for 1% of global GHGes. While it’s likely impossible to decrease that large contribution to global heating, it may be possible to prevent the expansion of ICT’s carbon footprint through mindful practices. For streaming video, these include simple measures like streaming less, decreasing the resolution of the media we stream, watching durable media (think DVDs from the library), government regulation of streaming services, and of course decreasing the resolution of movies we upload. In most cases a high-resolution image is not necessary to convey informative and affective impact. Another solution is for artists to devise one version of a movie for live presentation and another, smaller version for streaming.

Small-file cinema constitutes a radical new aesthetic practice born of environmental necessity and formal experimentation. Artists can begin by filming with lower resolution, such as 640 x 360. Paying attention to shape, color, and movement rather than content ensures a visually satisfying image. Recording sound in mono saves a lot of file space. Decreasing camera movement and movement in the frame, as well as using a shallow focal length, ensures that images will come out of compression looking fairly crisp.

And then compression, for small-file artists, is not a tiresome necessity but a creative medium of its own. Experimenting with the parameters of common compression platforms such as Handbrake, ffmpeg, and Any Video Converter, artists can choose either to maximize fidelity to the original or to exploit compression’s formal potentials, such that compression becomes a medium in itself. For example, decreasing the frame rate saves a lot of file space and is initially barely detectible, but yields dreamlike saccadic motion under around 12 frames per minute. The NeatVideo plug-in is meant to remove image noise, but as film editor Patrick Düren points out, it “can, if wrongly configured, also remove a lot of the smaller details and thus gain a state of ridiculous smoothness.” [1] Depending on the parameters you select, figures can develop dramatic outlines or blur together in abstract patterns.

These artful practices distinguish small-file movies from Hito Steyerl's well-known concept of the poor image, an image that gets increasingly battered as it circulates. Because they are designed to circulate as small files, small-file movies are rich images—little jewels.

As if to revel in the limitations of its size, a small-file movie has to lean into all the things it can never be. To stream with a small footprint means the movie never can never be big: it has to be intensive rather than extensive, maybe a little difficult, sometimes hard to identify with, abstract. Some small-file movies, following the suggestions noted above, remain crisp and accessible: for example, Mike Hazard’s Something from nothing (Dr. Evermor) (2020) and Cat Hart’s Correspondence (2021). Across other small-file movies, there is often the sensation of not knowing what we are watching. This lack of figuration wears away at the codes of traditional viewership, in which colours, shapes, movement, sound and even story line get to play through without expectation, taken for granted. Viewers lean in, drawing on their associations with form, movement, and sound. [LM2] In a good small-file movie, every formal element matters and invites the spectator to admire how skilfully it serves the movie as a whole.

Hân pham’s Once Upon a Time (2020) is set in the artist’s bedroom, a pandemic-era refuge. The bed begins to rattle and the walls to quake, their blank spaces becoming populated by moving images that bump against each other until everything that can be seen becomes something else. People and places appear in chaotically edited footage of Vietnamese children’s television and French travelogues and American newsreels of Vietnam that blur together like a dream sequence. The glitch, noise, and distortion of this film give a lot for the viewer to grip on to, and yet, it is very difficult to hang on. But a devoted viewer is rewarded with a dense history of the artist’s home country that erupts like an unsettling dream into the quiet sleeping space.

Ockert Greeff’s video poem Cling (2021) pictures the passing industrial landscape through a train window to which sharply limned raindrops—the only part of the image in focus—cling. A distant song and soft snare brushes caress the ear as those tear-like drops caress the viewer’s eye. Gravity causes the train and humans to cling to the surface of the earth, a gentle voice over remarks. Yet according to a Facebook group, one human named Harold Innis-Green, who may have emigrated to Canada, has lost his way. Compressions softens the harsh gray landscape, as the empathy of Greeff’s words tenderly embraces the unknown traveler, wherever he is.

This year the Small File Media Festival team will be expanding our call for work to movies of any length that follow the 1 MB per minute guideline. We are hoping for blurry soap operas, pixelated cooking shows, evanescent sports coverage, mesmerizing music videos. The precedent for long-format small-file movies comes from U.S. artist Andrew Roach, who has submitted dreamlike narratives of 11 to 15 minutes in which pixel blocks compete with characters for significance (Operation Sasquatch, 2021) and science-fiction narrative is maintained thanks to a few recognizable cinematic tropes that translate faithfully in even the raggedest of low resolution (Teenagers from Outerspace—Silent Edition, 2022).

While the mind searches for a narrative meaning, the eyes are free to travel across the screen, dispersed by the passing lights, leaving us left to wonder what we are really experiencing. In small file films, we see things, not as they are – for the things they vaguely represent – but for what they become as we experience them. Small files are inaugurating a new aesthetic that is intensive rather than extensive, drawing the willing viewer into worlds that expand within their perception, in artworks that embrace their infrastructure rather than deny it.

Yani Kong is a writer, editor, and scholar of contemporary art in Vancouver, Canada.
More on Yani Kong
Laura U. Marks works on media art and philosophy with an intercultural focus and an emphasis on appropriate technologies.
More on Laura Marks

Suggested Citation:

Kong, Y. & Marks, L. (2023) '“You can’t look into my eyes.” The Aesthetics of Small-File Cinema', The Photographers’ Gallery: Unthinking Photography. Available at: https://unthinking.photography/articles/you-cant-look-into-my-eyes-the-aesthetics-of-small-file-cinema
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