Amongst all technologies, the clock and the camera are distinct in providing humans, and more recently machines, two universal metrics for measuring and restructuring the world. Therefore it shouldn’t be a surprise that, once synthesized into cinema, their impact on humans was exponentially multiplied beyond their original scope. What is not discussed often in the 20th-century history of cinema—as the simultaneous reproduction of time, movement, and space on a flat surface—is how film was able to successfully obscure its alien function behind a familiar human face. Film approached the world just like humans. Not only did it see and record the changing world according to humans, it chose to focus on humanity by inheriting its long love affair with performance and narrative.
This is why the frequently pronounced death of cinema should perhaps be attributed less to its digital metamorphosis in the last decade and more to the eventual failure of its human camouflage, which had succeeded in masking its role in the industrialization of human consciousness and the standardization of memory across multiple geographies and generations. The reasons why this mask worked so effectively for so long correspond to both the medium’s mimicking of the human mind’s temporal structures—think Bergson and Deleuze—and the cinematic essence of our own un/consciousness. The constant advocacy of cinema in the 20th century as a communal space for advancing universal humanism by those involved in making and theorizing film should also be considered another reason for why and how this giant machine was able to maintain its fake yet humble human face for almost a century. Maybe a better question to ask would be: what kind of universalism and humanism can a medium like cinema lend itself? The answer might lie in the particular future to which the medium’s own twin pre-histories—of theater as a public event and camera obscura as a private experience—were pointing long before the arrival of the Lumière brothers.
We might for the sake of our own argument agree with the conventional wisdom about the contemporary shift from Hollywood to Facebook, but this acknowledgement should not undermine the common informatic structure and the human-centered function of these media. Cinema and social media share the ability to intervene on a massive scale in the psycho-phenomenological process of individuation which has historically enabled subjects to use common tools like visual and textual languages to become individuals. This social process through which a person comes to terms with herself as a unique unit of thought and action might have shifted from a linear and narrative procedure to a newer one based on interrelated archives, but what remains the same is how the media’s success is still measured according to its ability to bring out the human in humans. The human mask of cinema might be gone, and the precarious production of subjects in social media may now contradict the accumulative formation of a concrete and stable humanity in cinema, but what remains the same is how they both help produce an evolving and recognizable universal subject whose abilities for dealing with changing social conditions can be enhanced and confirmed by and through interaction with media.
And if, like me, you have been looking at contemporary art to find sanity and a sense of sobriety from humanity’s drunken love for itself, you might be disappointed to find out that the art world’s adoption of cinematic and computational media via video projections and multimedia installations can hardly be considered redeeming. There, you will again see not much except indeterminate and contradicting portraits of our human-dominated world in all of its dimensions, placed intentionally at the center of every intellectual argument.
To summarize, the death of cinema is about neither dying nor its digital regeneration but perhaps its transplantation from one outer form to another, the shedding of a skeomorphic skin that connected movies more to their theatrical heritage than the algorithmic and technological essence they inherited from the clock and the camera obscura towards the preservation of time and space. If anything, cinema was condemned to an early death at birth through its immediate absorption in the development of the modern and contemporary popular culture on a global scale. The actual death of cinema is therefore analogous to the death of nature under the conditions imposed on it by humans. The 20th century witnessed how human-centered cinema followed and caught up with our older ambition for rapid and accelerated industrialization. Thus the resurrection of cinema and its digital and networked offspring from death must involve saving them from their humanistic essence. Like nature, they need to be rescued from the domain of man and freed from his short-circuited feedback loop that ties every film—if not every piece of media, its beginning, and its end, to humans.
MOHAMMAD SALEMY is an independent critic and curator from Iran. He is the Chair of Institute for the Arts at the Global Center for Advanced Studies. He has curated exhibitions at the Koerner Gallery and AMS Gallery at the University of British Columbia, as well as the Satellite Gallery, Access Gallery, and Dadabase.