Jump directly to the page contents

The first impression: indeterminate visual noise, an aesthetic of digital artifacts. There’s interference here. But who or what is being interfered with and why? The first images show incorporeal patterns and forms in black and white, although they don’t represent anything other than the pulsations of digital technologies and certainly not a world. But there is a continual shift in forms; the visual noise being offered up to our perception is some unspecific texture that morphs at will. Repeated abstraction. Are we supposed to invest energy, to start reading, interpreting, decoding nonetheless? Well, why not? Initially accompanied by an equally indeterminate crackle of inference on the soundtrack, this image is alive. It has to be getting its energy from somewhere; it’s certainly using some, otherwise the pattern would be rigid, the soundtrack silent. But maybe the image will become clearer in the next minutes regarding the film’s exposition? Perhaps it’s just a temporary veil of not-yet-knowing that can and will reveal what’s before us at any given moment. Is the techno noise of the prelude not enough in itself? Is it hiding, covering, blocking something? With reception theoretical relief, we discern the first understandable signal around one minute in. A non-human sounding voice suddenly asks: “How can I help you?”

A Last-Person Narrative in the Context of the Biodiversity Crises

It’s not a bad question. This is how Viera Čákanyová’s Poznámky z Eremocénu (Notes from Eremocene) begins, which forms a trilogy with the director’s previous works Frem (Forum 2020) and White on White (2020) and even shares material with them. So first there are the abstract, incorporeal digital images, a brief wait, a delay in meaning production. A dramatic structure aimed at latency – not atypical for experimental works which maintain a distanced relationship to the standard routines for constructing film worlds and narrating generically formatted stories. And yet after the interference prelude – that’s why it’s an introduction – a sort of mnemocultural last-person narrative begins, which looks at our present from far in the future. That fact that the former is viewed as being in an unpleasant phase of decline, as an end of days, is also immediately conveyed. And the film’s title already gives away where the journey is headed: to the Eremocene, a concept coined by American biologist E.O. Wilson for an “age of loneliness” already very much on the horizon, a consequence of the escalating biodiversity crises of the Anthropocene. What remains, if only temporarily, is the ever more lonely human species, surrounded by the “manifold loss of life” (Matthias Glaubrecht) that it itself has caused.

Put together from diary-like fragments, the privatistic narrative mode employed by Poznámky z Eremocénu is a certain extent akin to viewing an archive, which is being looked at from an ex-post perspective. Someone is going through a stock of digital and digitised materials, primarily images with several sound recordings, whose existence and origins are not self-explanatory. On the contrary: they baffle those reading the archive, who remain incorporeal voices to the end and never materialise in the film image, they are confused and in need of context. For all the end-of-days pessimism, the transmission model is thus that of the time capsule: a signal not addressed to anyone in particular, referring perhaps not to any concrete recipient, but certainly referencing a sender with a particular mission in mind (there’s something reminiscent of the Crypt of Civilization, Oglethorpe University’s 1940 time capsule project, here). 

"During the many different crises of 2022, the subject of Poznámky z Eremocénu effectively stopped believing in the future of humanity due to two equally negative tendencies: unchecked environmental destruction and the all-encompassing mechanisation of the everyday world to create a society of digital control."

What becomes comparatively quickly clear: a present now far back in the past from the film’s perspective, a present possibly still ours for the moment, is sending digitally stored information into a future that can evidently only be imagined as a late-stage dystopia of climate catastrophe and digital fascism. For at some point where there was still life, difference, hope, solidarity and an open future, even if all these things were perhaps already disappearing to differing degrees, a digital technology turned up in the form of blockchain and replaced the last vestiges of analogue unshareability with the implacability of the digital binary. Everything, not just financial currency, is now broken into discrete digital units and compressed without regard for loss. That’s how Poznámky z Eremocénu sees it anyway, citing not only Satoshi Nakamoto to this end, the inventor of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin who disappeared without trace, but also lectures by mathematician Ralph Merkle, who developed cryptographic hash functions, foremost among them the Merkle tree that forms the basis of blockchain technology.  

Virtual Alter Egos in the Post-Anthropocene

It also quickly becomes clear to the viewer that the voice which offered help at the beginning is located in a future not further defined. A second voice, which would happily take up this offer of help, is also located in this future, as its first reply makes clear: “Can you help me find my original character?” As the same morphing interference patterns initially continue unabated, two non-human, technological or somehow alien beings now converse, who are managing and processing what used to be a stock of human information in a manner akin to archivists. The end of the human future has thus been reached, welcome to the post-Anthropocene. One of the beings, the one in need of help, still wants to carry out some provenance research though – on itself. He or she would like to know where he or she comes from, which sounds pretty human in turn. Yet it’s actually more than that, it’s what could almost be termed an existential crisis on the part of an avatar that wants to find out who he or she is, who he or she is standing in for. For as we find out later, the avatar is a proxy – he or she represents a person to be read as human (“played” by director Viera Čákanyová).

In the face of all the various crises – the climate catastrophe, the loss of biodiversity, the social isolation exacerbated by the pandemic, the erosion of democratic orders via authoritarian powers and so on – this person has made a virtual copy of themselves, treating themselves to their own digital clone, an action taken a long time ago from the point of view of the film (our present), back when people still existed and not just bits and virtual alter egos based on blockchain. Seen in this way, Poznámky z Eremocénu is the narrative of a time capsule project entirely reduced to the individual, already almost solipsistic, whereby it’s not objects being sent into the future that are supposed to represent “human civilisation”, but rather the virtual copy of an individual subject. In 2022, this subject effectively stopped believing in the future of humanity due to two equally negative tendencies: unchecked environmental destruction and the all-encompassing mechanisation of the everyday world to create a society of digital control.

“It‘s Super Natural, it‘s Super 8”: Cultural Critique vs. Aesthetic Modes of Connection

What’s more ambivalent about this set-up, which tries its hand at various essayistic approaches and constructs an elaborate cultural critique, is the aesthetic status of the digital imaging technologies it employs. Viera Čákanyová’s experimental treatment of differences in film materials is to a certain extent reminiscent of Jorge Jácome’s Super Natural, which showed at the Forum last year and won the FIPRESCI prize. There too, we initially encounter an AI-voice free from either body or location that only becomes intelligible thanks to the subtitles and broadcasts the strangely generic building blocks of a meditation text. While the subtitle text being delivered by what sounds like a machine explores questions of the organic, the environmental, the evolutionary and relationality itself in ever more explicit fashion – how human and non-human bodies are connected via their diversity and individual legitimacy and can only be grasped as a structure of interactions –, the montage brings together disparate visual materials: black-and-white surveillance footage of suburban landscapes and sleeping people by night; digitally generated underwater, animal, performance and choreography scenes stand alongside CGI elements used to augment portrait images with digital filters and comic-like visual effects. When the first analogue images, shot on Super 8 film, appear, of an island, a mountainous landscape and shining analogue colours in between as celluloid epiphanies, they are commented on by the chirruping AI voice with respect to the evolution of the image: “We are always born in another body. Here’s my eighth body. It’s super natural. It’s super 8“. Jácome’s film makes reference to the aesthetic modes of connection not in spite of but rather through material aesthetic difference. Images may always be different, their own individual thing, but they also reliably create connections and form environments as such.

"Poznámky z Eremocénu also carries the insistently propounded anti-digital rhetoric into aesthetic zones more tolerant of ambiguity."

POZNÁMKY Z EREMOCÉNU also tirelessly edits together diary-like 8mm and 16mm film footage (including of climate protests, as well as of elegiac seaside scenes), which constantly become infiltrated by the digital in the narrative presence of the virtual clone: digital artefacts make their way into analogue images, as do the word vector spaces of some computer-generated natural language processing programme, whose visualisations of conceptual relationships also become inscribed into the film footage. The apologia of the analogue, of the celebration of the organic vitality, unshareability and unavailability of analogue photo-chemical fundamentals and their alleged resilience are not just contrasted with the appealing wildness of digital artefact and interference patterns in terms of their intrinsic aesthetic value. In extremely productive and complex fashion, Viera Čákanyová also explores the aesthetic specifics of digital point cloud models, which can be created via the 3D laser scanning technology known as LIDAR.

An Archive of the Analogue and Digital Traces of the Human

Based on laser technology, LIDAR stands for “light detection and ranging” and is currently used for various applications, including autonomous driving, virtual crime scene forensics and the scanning of entire buildings and areas as a means of securing so-called international cultural heritage. Yet for some time now, it has also been used for aesthetic experiments. In recent years, the artistic research agency ScanLAB has, for example, set out on the stereographical and photographic trail of pioneers Eadweard Muybridge and Ansel Adams under the banner of “post-lenticular landscapes” to capture the Yosemite National Park using laser technology. Another of the London-based group’s projects explores the imaging and modelling productivity of self-driving cars, which use LIDAR to locate themselves within space and continually generate models of their surroundings, which can be grasped and extracted as images of city space created via a new form of machine vision.

In these passages, Poznámky z Eremocénu carries the insistently propounded anti-digital rhetoric into aesthetic zones more tolerant of ambiguity. For the focus is ultimately on reading traces, on questions of the legibility of anthropogenic inscription – regardless of whether created via analogue or digital technology. Over the course of the film, self-generated LIDAR footage of areas of forest, election booths and the director sitting in her armchair or the cabin of a boat (which she herself thus must have scanned in) communicate in ever more open and persistent fashion with the 8mm and 16mm material. Captured and stored millions of times with pinpoint precision, the individual coordinates of the point clouds generated by laser scan technology – the term here is not pixels, but rather voxels, a graphic visualisation of volume – do not just become legible as exact spatial and object data here, but also as aesthetic registers and models for perception. A uniquely individual archive, rich in its own intrinsic aesthetic value and surplus, which simultaneously bears witness to the views and insights of humankind even after it is gone.

Simon Rothöhler is professor for Visual Culture and Media Infrastructures at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum as well as the co-founder and co-editor of the film and media magazine cargo.

Translated from the German by James Lattimer


Funded by:

  • Logo Minister of State for Culture and the Media
  • Logo des Programms NeuStart Kultur