Static Films (2017) – Background

Imagine for a moment some alternate world, some alternate history. Imagine that there is a civilization that has prospered. They’ve made achievements in literature. Achievements in science. And they captured these achievements, in order to record them and to share them with others and with future generations of their kind in what amount to books. Books and articles. Just like what we are accustomed to is many ways.

Let’s also imagine that the civilization, as all civilizations surely are, is buffeted by political winds laying claim to this heritage. One political faction wants to change the list of works once considered the pinnacles of achievement in order to further their political aims and to redress what they perceive as past wrongs.

Another political faction, in opposition to the first, does something unexpected. Instead of pushing back on the first group, insisting that certain authors and certain works must remain on the select list no matter what, began instead to see the list as the foundation of their opponent’s beliefs, and they begin to believe that certain bedrock discoveries by earlier scientists simply aren’t true. They begin to reject their scientific and cultural heritage as politically tainted.

I learned to program in Python to produce my RGB project. I continued with a second program, StaticFilmColor, which did a neat thing. It took a text–a book, a poem, an essay, and it converted it to static. Static like what you used to see on analogue TV’s when there was no signal. Random noise.

Consider. Even people without much familiarity with computers know that computers “think” in binary code. That’s basically right. When you type a “T” on your computer screen the “T” isn’t really stored in your computer–the “T” is stored in binary code. That “T” is really stored as a series of ones and zeros like: 01010100. “The” (three letters) would be 01010100 01101000 01100101. And so forth. A unique series of ones and zeros for each letter and punctuation mark.

Now imagine a whole page of these, edge to edge, top to bottom. Imagine now a grid small squares on the page, with each of those ones and zeroes placed within their own little square. Now–here’s the key step–imagine replacing each one or zero with a black or white pixel (black for “1”, white for “0”). It would be the same data, just in a different form. You could easily undo the process, starting from the back and white pixels, converting them back to ones and zeros, then converting that back to our English letters. No data loss at all. And that page of black and white pixels, when you looked at the page as a whole, would look just like static, random white and black pixels. Except that in our case our pixels are the exact opposite of random. They are in fact the text. Just in a different form.

Put a series of static pictures together and you have a video.

When I first started working on this project I chose the Bible as my test subject. It was a book I could easily download in text format online and it was a big book. I needed a big book.

When the program was far enough along in development to start testing I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation to see how many video frames I should expect to be produced by the Bible. I was hoping for a video of about ten minutes in length. I don’t think even the most dedicated fan of my work would be willing to watch a static screen longer than that. So I did my calculations.

The Bible has on the order of 800,000 words, 3.1 million characters. I didn’t count. I googled. So, if we convert each of those 3.1 million characters to an eight character series of ones and zeros the math is easy–eight times 3.1 million, so about twenty-five million ones and zeros. I should have no problem hitting ten minutes of video, at thirty video frames per second. I used 4k video so my resolution. With each frame roughly two thousand pixels by four thousand pixels, that is about eight million pixels per frame….at that point I thought I had made an error. I checked and rechecked. It didn’t seem right at all. The Bible is a huge book. Even religious people rarely read the whole thing. But if each video frame holds eight million pixels, and the Bible totaled twenty-five million pixels, then I had enough data for a little over three frames. Not minutes, not seconds, but frames. That’s about one tenth of a second.

That was surprising.

You could put a little static at the end of movies, at the end of any odd video. You could scatter them about, secreted in other works all over the place.

In case you are wondering, I did write a test program that took a video frame as its starting point and worked backwards, without any additional hints, to produce the original text. It worked beautifully, recreating the original writing, word for word, character for character.

If you are an art scholar I hope you got the double entendre of this project’s title. The idea of a static film–a film that doesn’t move or do much but yet is a serious work of art–is one that gets reinvented every generation or two. Any artist who gets a hold of a movie camera or a video camera starts out here. They have since the beginning. It’s just the obvious thing to do. Point the camera at something and record. See what you get. Andy Warhol did several of these that are quite famous, *Empire*–an eight-hour static shot of the Empire State Building from sunset to sunrise–is the best known, and occasionally even screened. But there are many more. They are sometimes called “furniture films” which try to name them from a functional point of view rather than attempting to create a definition (or a requirement) of what appears on the screen.

You don’t really watch static films. Sometimes, like at a party, or when you are reading, they function in the same way as background noise.

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