THE SKIN I LIVE IN: Notes on Vimeo

On a computer, a vector graphic is the opposite of a raster graphic. A vector is all relative points with no resolution; a raster is all resolution. The raster is resolute, fixed, of this world. It contains the photographic, and if you blow it up, it will appear to degrade. If you pair it with a vector, there will be a contrast, for better or for worse. This is precisely what Vimeo does. Or you could say, this is what it offers. It is a frame which prefers highly processed HD images over older formats. New video images are becoming more processed in an obsessive pursuit of resolution (2K, 4K, 8K, 18K?) in modern camera manufacturing, despite the images being viewed on smaller and smaller screens. So even though the videos we watch on Vimeo have been shrunk and compressed, the ones which fit in the frame best are those which feel most like computer graphics. They’re either photographic images scaled down from huge resolutions, smoothing themselves to simulate computer graphics, or they were born on a computer to begin with.

Yet as 70mm film attests, resolution is nothing new. What’s been added is scale and stability. The smaller a viewing screen, the less visible the pixels. And the more stable the surface of an image (decreased noise, grain, jitter—advances in cameras are accompanied by advances in digital film scanning), the more absolute its resolution feels. These are important aspects reinforced by the graphic-designed “skin” of a website, an operating system, or the sleek brushed aluminum of the device itself. It is a standard to which new images aspire.

I find it funny that the quest for larger and larger resolution is actually the elimination of the concept of resolution. It is a quest for an image that cannot be degraded; the stand-in for reality itself. When reality becomes a vectorized icon. And through this form, content is noticeably affected: more and more moving images enter culture as tidbits and teasers and short, streamable, digestible chunks of data. Icons. This is a broad trend in digital design, as well as popular filmmaking aesthetics. It’s moving image as an idea, a suggestion, a perpetual preview format. Vimeo clearly gets it.* Its very name is an anagram for “movie”; the thing itself, reconsidered.

Icons are the order of the day—tattoos and Instagrams and online dating and avatars and the relentless war-drumming of self-promotion and marketing and product placement and kickstarting—and we all know this. What matters to me, as a filmmaker, is assessing whether I have autonomy. For instance, I don’t like buying new products to ensure that my movies look competitive. Maybe this is being broke, or maybe it’s an allergic reaction to an overabundance of images—that part of “moving image” now losing its singular appeal. I’m driven more by the “moving” part, the time. I’ve noticed that spending enough time with any format—VHS or 16mm or Flipcam or HD—projected in a dark theater, is equally convincing if shown on its own terms. Bad and good image quality is extremely relative. It’s more about learning a particular language.

Ultimately, Vimeo is just a service responding to the flux. I’d be curious to experience it minus any skin: just videos and hyperlinked text. (You actually have to pay two-fold for that freedom with their “Pro” account. For the site’s public face, I guess it’d be too weird and austere and unfriendly, more like old-man-skin than cool-Brooklyn-skin.) I’m probably overthinking it. Maybe in the same way YouTube has become a medium of quantity, Vimeo is becoming a medium unto itself, one of specific quality responding to technology and the companies that make it; reflecting the reality that moving images are now computer images: frames within frames within frames. Is there any point resisting? I certainly don’t want to be that guy wandering the streets of the East Village like a ghost, insisting nothing is like 16mm. Because a lot of things are only like themselves, and great.

I’m reminded of filmmaker Pedro Costa’s ruminations during a lecture delivered at Tokyo Film School in 2004, notably the same year Vimeo was founded, about his personal attraction to, and conflict with, mainstream imaging tools:

I have the impression that these little cameras come with … an invisible label—though very visible for me—that says: ‘Move me, move, you can do everything with me.’ That’s not true. Don’t do that with your camera or sound recorder, what the people who make them want. I bought this Panasonic camera but I’m not going to do what Panasonic wants. Things are used for work, cameras, small cameras, they’re very useful, they’re practical, not expensive, but watch out, it’s necessary to work them a lot, and work is the opposite of ease. Ease is the first idea. It’s like a lack of resistance. **

*To its credit, Vimeo has facilitated a network of hard-to-see or undistributed artist videos, traded between artists, programmers, and link hoarders.

**Rogue – Pedro Costa “A Closed Door that Leaves Us Guessing”


James N. Kienitz Wilkins

JAMES N. KIENITZ WILKINS is a filmmaker and artist based in Brooklyn.