Digital Narrative: Notes on Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation’s whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir

by Tamar Margalit*

Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation, whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, 2007-2011 installation view at Haunch of Venison, London

When Michael Snow’s film Wavelength came out in 1967, it was lauded for being “at once one of the simplest and one of the most complex films ever conceived.”[1]A 45-minute single shot of a room, Wavelength was the most reduced form of film that had ever been made and remains the paradigmatic example of the emergent genre of structural film, the breakthrough achievement of which was its destruction of narrative. Now, more than forty years later, Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation’s latest creation whiteonwhite:algoritmicnoir[2] (exhibited this fall at Cristin Tierny Gallery in Chelsea) very much follows in its wake, but simultaneously finds a new way to counter this counter-culture avant garde. Instead of doing away with narrative altogether, Sussman opts for the opposite: she invokes a new, digital narrative that creates a sense of hyper-reality.

The digital narrative consists of footage of thousands of short scenes, hundreds of voiceovers and musical scores that are then fed into a computer. The computer, exhibited next to the projection screen in the gallery space, is in fact a live editing room, spitting out the “informational bits” in random sequence. Gradually, the film noir that the title promises is constructed: a loose plot of a conspiracy unfolding in the Communist Soviet Union in an unidentified point in time (characterized by the press release as “retro-futuristic”). Like the main character, Holz, who feels that his coordinates of space and time have been subject to tampering, the audience is similarly made aware of its own sense of disorientation: Russian switches to English and then to German, a 1970s-like detective TV show scene is immediately followed by a black-and-white surveillance snippet; and voiceovers describe different events than the ones being witnessed.

Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation, whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, 2007-2011, film stills

Critic Annette Michelson noted that in Wavelength, Snow redefined film through action “by emptying the space of his film” thus redefining action as “pure movement in time.”[3] If Wavelength operates as an empty space, the “contours of narrative”, then whiteonwhite operates on an opposing structural scheme. It is an over-packed space that lacks definite contours; instead of a forward moving action, the film is in a constant state of overlapping discontinuity.

Michael Snow, Wavelength, 1967, film still

 Sussman’s whiteonwhite, like Christian Marclay’s 2010 video work The Clock, launches what feels like a new experiment in film. The randomly generated sequences seems to align with the legacy of structural film through its insistence on the film’s shape rather than its content. What little content it does have is “minimal and subsidiary to the outline.”[4] But while the tradition of structural film relies on shape that is “predetermined and simplified,” Sussman’s film is an elaborate study of randomness. It is not simplified: its dense layers are the result of a complex computer code. Nor is it predetermined: the algorithm-based editing ensures that the film never takes on a definite form and can never be seen the same way twice.

Walter Benjamin laments the loss of the artwork’s aura in the age of mechanical reproduction, writing that “in even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art.”[5] By establishing that the film can never be seen twice in the same way, whiteonwhite achieves a return of the aura of sorts as the work becomes a unique occurrence, taking place in “the here and now.”

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More than just drawing from Structural Film, whiteonwhite evokes the cinematic tradition of the European avant garde filmmakers of the 1920s who attempted to destroy narrative in order to situate film “in a kind of perpetual Present, one image or sequence succeeding another in rapid disjunction.”[6] In particular, the film brings to mind Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov’s silent documentary Man with the Movie Camera of 1929, which consists of short scenes shot separately without a plotline to tie them together. In its embrace of wide-ranging cinematic techniques (zooms, slow and fast-forward motion, jump cuts, split screens), the density and incongruence of Vertov’s film is prescient to that of whiteonwhite. But while Man with the Movie Camera is a celebration of the machine in (then) contemporary Soviet Union, Sussman’s fissured film exposes the paranoia and malaise of city-life under surveillance (much like Harun Farocki’s Counter-Music of 2004, which also borrowed from Vertov’s film).

Dziga Vertov, Man with the Movie Camera, 1929, film still

The title whiteonwhite, too, summons Russian aesthetic history, as it references Kazimir Malevich’s 1918 painting of the same name, which famously depicts a single white square floating against a white background. Malevich’s Suprematist paintings consist of dynamic compositions of geometric forms that stand for a new conception of reality that goes against traditional representation. For Malevich, Suprematist art at its finest establishes “non-objectivity as the universal reality.”[7] White on White epitomizes Malevich’s efforts to unify theory and the work of art. As Crone and Moos write, in White on White “the verb and the noun ‘painting’ is exemplified.”[8]

During the shooting of whiteonwhite, Sussman and the Rufus Corporation kept a blog in which they explicitly cited Malevich’s groundbreaking move towards non-objective art as their theoretical point of departure:

In 1915, two years before the Revolution, the renowned Russian national painter Kasimir Malevich abruptly stopped painting things. In their stead he painted a Black Square on a white canvas and demanded that painting and Western art in general be through with representation. Literally, be finished with representation, as in: cease to render things, real things, reality, or any way in which we imagine reality to be. Stop making pictures of things. This occurred, briefly, for two reasons. Painting, he deduced, had already done everything that was possible for it to do. And second, the camera and the cinema could do it now better. [9]  

Malevich’s ideological denouncement of representation is interestingly traced here to his supposed realization that photography and film “could do it now better.” That Malevich turned to abstract painting solely because of the development of the camera seems doubtful but, curiously, Moholy-Nagy picked up on a similar interpretation of White on White. In its white surface and play between light and shadow, Moholy-Nagy found that “Malevich’s picture represented a miniature cinema screen.”[10] Also on this point, in her book Malevich and Film, Margarita Tupitsyn quotes Deleuze’s remark that “the highest degree of rarefaction seems to be attained with the empty set [in image and cinema], when the screen becomes completely black or white,” to which she adds that “in Malevich’s case, this is the Black Square and White on White.”[11]

Kazimir Malevich, White on White, 1918

How Suprematist non-objective art might translate into film is suggested by Malevich’s own account of no other than Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera. He writes on Vertov’s film: “[It] is a step forward in the sense that it no longer represents a theme that retains its entire image over the duration of the film, but rather represents the collapse of the theme and even the dissolution of objects in time, at the expense of dynamic expression.”[12]By drawing up influences from both these forefathers, Sussman’s film links to Suprematism’s transgressiveness by elaborating the structural elements of Man with the Movie Camera that Malevich had picked up on.

But whiteonwhite is linked to Suprematism in more than its attempt at non-objectivity. By creating an imaginary setting for the film – one that cannot be pinned to a specific point in time – whiteonwhite touches on the “Suprematist quests for transcendence, pure space and artistic higher ground.”[13]  And while it is true that Suprematism was tied in with the ideological seed of the Russian Revolution, it is the disillusionment and disintegrating stages of Communism that more aptly characterizes the backdrop of Sussman’s film. No longer the color of “purity, sanctity and eternity”[14] as it was for Malevich, Sussman’s film shows us what white has become in today’s digital reality: an accumulation of images that creates a washed out effect; a perpetual humming of “white noise”; or the projector light hitting the cinema screen.

“The illusionism of the new, temporal art reflects and occasions reflection upon, the conditions of knowledge,” Annette Michelson describes of cinema’s metaphorical stance: “It facilitates a critical focus upon the immediacy of experience in the flow of time.”[15]  Contemporary art often deals with the image-satiation of our everyday reality. Yet if we want to know what this bombardment of information feels like – with its fragmented, jarring uncertainties and faux sense of order – then Sussman’s whiteonwhite is as close as it gets.


1 Jud Yalkut, “Wavelength by Michael Snow,” Film Quarterly Vol. 21, No. 4 (Summer, 1968): 50.
2 The Rufus Corporation is the group of collaborators that Eve Sussman has worked with in her recent films. For convenience sake, I will refer to the creator as Sussman, and use the abbreviated film title whiteonwhite.
3 Annette Michelson, “Toward Snow,” in The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism, ed. P. Adams Sitney (New York: New York University Press, 1978), 175. The quotation that follows is from the same source.
4 P. Adams Sitney, “Structural Film,” in Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000 (1974; 3rd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 348. The quotation that follows is from the same source.
5 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, (1936; Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 22.
6 Michelson, “Toward Snow,” 176.
7 Quoted in Rainer Crone and David Moos, Kazimir Malevich: The Climax of Disclosure, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 120.
8 Ibid., 132.
9   This post was written by Jeff Wood, a member of the Rufus Corporation and the actor that plays Holz in the film: http://www.rufuscorporation.com/wordpress/
10   László Moholy-Nagy, The New Vision (1928; New York, 1946), 39.
11  Margarita Tupitsyn, Malevich and Film, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), 22.
12  Kazimir Malevich, “Painterly Laws in the Problems of Cinema,”(1929,  trans. Cathy Young), in Ibid., 156.
13  From the Rufus Corporation website press release: http://www.rufuscorporation.com/wowpr.htm
14 Yevgenia Petrova, “Malevich’s Suprematism and Religion,” in Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism, ed. Matthew Drutt, (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2003), 91.
15 Michelson, “Toward Snow,” 172.
*Tamar Margalit is first year student in the MA in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies program at Columbia University.