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Bliss.jpg or the Nanoscopic Landscape

Hasan Cem Çal   •    03.03.2024

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Landscape films are often structured with obsessive use of long shots, containing little to no mid-shots or close-ups, realized with nearly still images of things that seem to be unmoving. This is understandable at first sight since the landscape itself comes to mind as a complete or whole entity that compromises many things, together with an immersive yet unique aura. In that sense, landscapes are mindscapes of objects with certain unseen but felt qualities. We can even call them cerebral concerning the events in the brain, for everybody knows that an event worthy of its name always comes with its imaginary landscape. They are striking in an invisible and indivisible manner. The images they create are in space but of time.

We know what the temporality of a typical landscape film consists of. It consists of the temporalization of space in the most general sense of the word. All the structural features mentioned above are subordinated to the seamless passage of time that expresses itself in our innermost being as an intolerable continuum since they are comprised of unbelievable intensities. The space comes forth in a landscape film only to temporalize it, making it a scene of becoming and turning into a block, a block of duration, which makes the space all the more spatial than ever before by compressing, even modeling time in the image of space. James Benning and Jean-Marie Straub already were aware of this function, that’s why, to reclaim the temporal in the spatial of landscape film, they put the voice under and sometimes above the landscape they shot so that time could fly at least aurally, like an unknown figure behind the curtain or a ghost traversing the land. They radiated the land they captured with the force of the aural. It was as if the land was crying in their films.


Emily Rose Apter and Elijah Stevens's 9-minute video essay, Bliss.jpg, is of another nature. First of all, it’s mute. We deliberately use the word mute here to differentiate it from the silent. The thing silent always refers to nature: it is “from the start” silent. But mute refers to a choice and thus “artificial”: one “chooses” to be silent, get quiet, and become mute. So, in a way, muteness is silence that becomes conscious. Bliss.jpg is deliberately silent (though there are ambient sounds in it) in that it makes you aware of the noise in the image, that is, grain or noise, which eventually places itself on top of pixels. It zooms in and makes the image barely seeable but, via that, audible, even readable. It is an untypical landscape film that finds the sound in the “quiet depths” of the image, which is silent but brings forth the sound when the eye gets closer and closer to its object of vision. It melts the idea of the image and opens up to the aural. When the vision gets narrow, ears start to actuate—forced synesthesia.

In this type of film, the sight mimics the sound space. We know that every sound has its space, and to hear, in a certain way, is to enter the field of sound. Sound, in this sense, is only audible when it has the means to oscillate and fluctuate in space, and to hear it, one must enter the zone that it appropriates. To enter is to listen, to hear willingly. It is the same in Bliss.jpg. We start to listen to the space when we don’t take the space we behold in its totality for granted and get closer to it, enter it, and begin to see it up close, without the conditioning of its determined limits; in other words, its frame. The image is there to see it at first; that’s why it’s framed and is seen in its wholeness. Bliss.jpg reframes it to make it sound (both metaphorically and directly). Thus, reframing becomes the function of the sound in the image. It makes the image audible. The scanning or tracing of it becomes and turns out to be a visual notation. It may even be called synesthetic structuralism.


But Bliss.jpg not only does that, it also functions as a meta-visualizer. What do we mean by this? We already defined how landscape films generally work. Although there are many variations, typical procedures that follow the general protocol remain the same: making time solid and turning the image synonymous with space, transforming the image into a monolithic ground (not a “background” since everything is, logically even, forefront in a landscape film) in which everything and nothing happens simultaneously; the virtual space, in the strict sense of the term (ironically, it only shows the virtual landscapes of the desktops, hence the title of the film). Bliss.jpg does the opposite because it changes the image’s coordinates, scale, and dimension. The landscape is not at its macro level, where everything is seen, where to see is to behold once and for all, but at its micro level, which turns image-making into cartography of the best kind. The audience doesn’t simply see the landscape; they scan, trace, and skim it. It’s an untypical vision, an “atopology” that works with partial objects of the landscape or the bits of the space seen. Spatial-wise, it’s not land visioning but land surveying, not a visualization but a reimagining of the landscape, which John Cage gloriously did with sound only.

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But what types of landscapes does it show? How does it choose them? In an elemental fashion, strictly an elemental fashion. The first landscape, the plateau, is the earth. The second one, the desert, is the fire. The third one, the island, is the water. And the fourth and the last one, the mountains, is the air. Although, as is in reality, all the elements are interrelated and can be seen in another landscape, no one ceases to belong to a particular kind of landscape; all of them are in subordination to an element so that it, the film, presents a difference in series, only to deconstruct and dedifferentiate it. When the eye gets close to these landscapes, they bubble, making their pixels seen, lines apparent, and artificiality permeable. Elements get together and blend that way: in the degree of the molecules of the image, all lines form squares, which reflexively construct the landscape as we know it and are not seeable in the first place due to their nanoscopic sizes.


Another question comes to mind: how does the film survey the lands it presents? It recognizes the patterns of the landscape seen and follows them. It tilts upward in the plateau, downward in the desert, pans in the island, and both pans and tilts in the mountains. It follows the vertical and horizontal lines of the landscapes and mimics their patterns to design them anew by being loyal to how they form naturally (waves in the desert and waving cross-tilt of the eye). So, it has a built-in pattern recognition that considers the natural forms encapsulated in the landscapes. But weren’t they already artificial? So why bother “naturally” representing them? Here’s why: only in that way, in the uttermost abstraction of the image, can one pierce the virtual membrane and get close to the actuality of it. It is a paradoxical attitude of sorts, as they say. One needs to abstract to eliminate all abstraction. In this context, this is a materialist film whose vision is analogical, although its object is not, and is an example of dual or hybrid imagery in cinema. The film is constructed in the analogical but deconstructed in the digital. The first is the macro image, and the second is the micro. Together, they form the major and minor tones of the seeable.


Lastly, Apter and Stevens's Bliss.jpg reinstates, even reinstalls, time to landscapes it shows and gently gazes. Now, the landscape film is not part of a speculative enterprise like “slow cinema” or something related to the inertia or the stasis of time in the film but is, as is very clear, the opposite: something that finds the time in the stillness, in photographs, by looking at them in motion, by capturing them while looking at them, and therefore making them move and also moving. In a way, it starts with what other landscape films end on: total fixity. It takes a frozen section of time, the photographic space as we know it, and makes it cinematographical through visual contemplation. In this sense, we can even say that it mimics the vision defined or taken hostage by a photograph’s observation. It observes the still images or “pictures,” but while it does it, we keep the observation itself, varying it in motion, which is a cinematic experience per se. It is a meta-visualizer in that it visualizes a particular kind of vision that knows its object as photographic but processes it, unconsciously though, cinematically. At this point, one can even call the space of Bliss.jpg a subliminal one since it makes seeing (a far-too-apparent gesture) a distinct type of object by visualizing it with what defines it at the core: the motion. It is rephotography at its most cinematic verse. When the film sees for its part, the remainder is to see the seeing.


But what about the landscape? Why does Bliss.jpg render it? Why does it take the landscape, the concrete scenery where all the elements are in motion microscopically and are given virtually, as its sole object of encounter? We can only speculate. So let’s do it once and for all: because the landscape calls for it, it summons the forces that will traverse it, it has the gravitational pull that forces the vision to disappear in the depths of it, and it’s an invitation for its reduplication by entry. It pulls the form that it puts into work from the content it engenders. Landscape becomes a verb rather than a noun on this level: landscaping. Imagine a landscape film as a matrioshka: isn’t it blissful?


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